February 23, 2001

Meet Norm Urmy

Featured Image

Urmy performs with band "Soul Incision" during a recent gig. (photo by Dana Johnson)

Meet Norm Urmy

Posing as Superman, Urmy helps kick off last year's Community  Giving Campaign. (photo by Dana Johnson)

Posing as Superman, Urmy helps kick off last year's Community Giving Campaign. (photo by Dana Johnson)

Norm and son Matt practice their rollerskating techniques at the VUMC picnic in 1983.

Norm and son Matt practice their rollerskating techniques at the VUMC picnic in 1983.

Norm practices another skill with Carole, his wife of 30 years. (photo by Dana Johnson)

Norm practices another skill with Carole, his wife of 30 years. (photo by Dana Johnson)

Editor’s note: This is the first of a monthly series featuring interesting VUMC staff and faculty members.

He slips his arms into a black leather jacket, a straight-cuff biker type with a loud, glaring rock band logo stitched across the back. He tugs at the collar, rolls his shoulders, turns to his assistant shining the grin of a kid with his first bike. “Pretty cool, huh?”

Meet Norm Urmy, VUMC’s executive vice president for Clinical Affairs and rockin’ lead guitarist in the band he co-founded, “Soul Incision.” Urmy’s standing just outside his walnut-paneled Medical Center North office with a box full of the jackets for himself and the other band members, most of them VUMC physicians, administrators and researchers.

After a quick affirmation from his assistant, Shelia Gad, the jacket’s off, Urmy’s back behind his desk and, typical of his style, he’s back to business, the leather-induced gleam in his eye focused on faxes and phone calls.

Dr. Jenny Franke, urologist by day, backup singer and tambourine shaker by night, wraps up Norm Urmy’s story. “He’s a serious guy. He takes his work very seriously. But put a guitar in his hand and he’s a different guy,” she says.

And so there are two Norm Urmys: the one in the pinstriped suits presiding over business decisions at one of the most prestigious medical centers in the country; the one who has had to make tough calls about resources; the one who helped pioneer clinical pathways; the stalwart 19-year VUMC veteran seen by his colleagues as a calming force in the growing tumult of health care.

And then there’s the man who moved his family from New York into a Davidson County log house and set up a couple of bee hives in the back yard; the guy who served on the board of his kids’ school; the one who skis black diamonds, and who, about four years ago, took up playing the guitar “to follow in my son’s footsteps,“ he says.

This is the Norm, the one behind the stoic face, that might surprise you. He’s not exactly an open book.

“I’ve known Norm a long time and I continue to find out what makes him tick,” Franke says. “It wasn’t until I got in the band that I got to know the real Norm.”

Bryan Brand has worked for Urmy since 1989. “When I started, our encounters were minimal. I wasn’t sure he even liked me,” says Brand, associate hospital director. Go to one of those big hospital administrator luncheons and most executives are going out of their way to grab a hand, slap a back, inject a political point. Urmy, Brand says, stands out. “He’s not a car salesman. He doesn’t smile just to smile. Most people say too much; Norm’s not overly friendly,” he says, implying Urmy’s sincerity.

Brand says he’s learned that Urmy’s lack of facial expression curtains his constant business strategizing.

Indeed, it’s his poker face that balances the ups and downs of hospital administration, according to assistant hospital director Charlotte Rogers, who has worked with Urmy since his arrival. “The toughest thing (to manage) is decreasing resources in terms of reimbursements, and increasing demands placed on us. The public and regulatory agencies have insisted on more, always having to do it with less,” Rogers says. Patient visits to The Vanderbilt Clinic and admissions to Vanderbilt University Hospital have risen, while length of stay has declined and reimbursements plummeted. But, Rogers says, “Norman is equally concerned about the finances and the people issues. He’s concerned about the welfare of the people around here.”

The business side of Urmy is even present in some of his hobbies. Even the bee-keeping hobby reflects a deeper intention than the obvious sweet rewards. “I was fascinated by bees,” he says. He waxes for a moment, losing himself in apiary amazement. “They have a structural society. Every bee has a job. You know, bees even heat and cool their own hives, and they can keep it within several degrees.”

It’s a momentary lapse, as was bee -keeping. “It didn’t stick” he says, a grin sneaking up on his face. “No pun intended, of course.”

It’s the unintentional – or rather the unexpected – that makes Urmy a curious study, and there’s wonder if the stoicism also is calculated, as if to enhance the light-hearted moments – like the time he wore a Superman costume and hammed it up to kick off the Community Giving Campaign, or his recent comedic role as a “survivor” in a skit to honor Dean John E. Chapman.

Urmy has always been around medicine. His father was an internist and settled the family in Williamstown, Mass., where the elder Urmy was the physician for the all-male Williams College, where Urmy the younger would later earn a bachelor’s degree. Then he spent a year working the emergency room admission desk at Massachusetts General Hospital. After his own taste of medicine, he was off to Chicago University for a master’s degree in hospital administration. He returned to work at New York University Medical Center and rose through the ranks to be hospital administrator and vice president.

During his tenure there he met a young attractive nurse named Carole. On one of their first dates he showed a flair for creativity and ingenuity, if not determination. Urmy was invited to a friend’s house on Long Island, and he wanted to take Carole. But like most city dwellers he didn’t own a car. So he borrowed a buddy’s bike, a Kawasaki 600. With a five-minute parking lot lesson under his belt, he headed out through the infamous city traffic, picked up his future bride and made a 75-mile trip without incident. “It was the first and last time I’ve ever ridden a motorcycle,” Urmy says.

He married the nurse in 1971. Four kids later, the couple was looking for more family-friendly environs. By chance he met the father of former Vanderbilt physician Fred Gorstein. Gorstein, who was at the time a professor of pathology, asked Urmy to investigate his father’s bill. In the course of correcting the bill, Urmy’s job hunt surfaced, and Gorstein pointed him to a slot at Vanderbilt. That was in 1982, when he became executive director of Vanderbilt University Hospital.

But Urmy’s not only about work. He and Carole have four kids, and their rearing was full of sports and family outings. Kate, their eldest, is married to Jon Puncochar and the couple have the Urmy’s only grandchild, Chloe, now 2. Their son, Matt, sparked his dad’s interest in playing guitar and periodically helps Soul Incision as a sound engineer. Twin daughters Liz and Susan are college freshmen, Liz at Boston College, Susan at Western Kentucky.

Besides the bees, hobbies have had Urmy crafting furniture, and two large framed photos in his office reflect double pasttimes – he photographed buddies knee deep in western U.S. rivers, fly rods caught between 10 and 2, and printed the artwork in his own dark room . “I like to take a good picture,” he says. And fishing outings have been annual escapes for decades.

About three years ago, Urmy was getting bored with guitar lessons. He talked to Brand, a keyboard player, and the two dreamed up a band. Soon, Dr. C. Wright Pinson, drummer and medical director of transplant services, agreed to provide the beat; lead singer Debbie Kemp, R.N., a former touring rock singer and now a Vanderbilt physician liaison, became their lead vocalist and the band took shape. Soul Incision (the name was voted on from a long list of bad medical puns) debuted at a hospital administration Christmas party, playing the same eight songs over and over.

Last year, the group cut an album, “First Cuts.” It’s an amalgam of classics from the 1960s to the 1980s. “We’ve almost sold enough – we’re within 20 CDs – to pay for making the damned thing,” Urmy says.

Carole Urmy says, “I never thought I’d say, ‘My husband, the musician.’” Her husband started the hobby, she says, “because he saw how much fun our son Matt (in a band since seventh grade) was having.” It’s helped the Urmy men bond, she says.

At the housestaff party, Urmy runs through a few solo riffs of “Johnny B. Good.” He’s not exactly Santana, but that’s not exactly his goal. He considers his guitar therapy good for mental health. “When I’m alone it’s a one-on-one session. When I play with the band it’s more like group therapy,” he says.

But in a larger picture, Urmy sees the band’s function in the context of his job. With regular gigs at medical center functions, “It’s kind of a cool thing that makes us (the band members, especially Urmy himself) more accessible at the medical center,” he says.

One of the housestaff party attendees, Dr. Fred Kirchner, associate dean of Graduate Medical Education, unwittingly ties Urmy’s position in the band – lead guitarist who seldom takes center stage – to his job. “He’s not the kind of person who needs to be in the spotlight. He stays behind the scenes and gets things done.”

Back in his paneled office, Urmy similarly describes his role at VUMC.

“My effectiveness is only as good as the value I bring to the organization,” he says. “The test of whether I’m being helpful is for the people on the front lines of patient care, or for their supervisors to say that administration helps them do their thing.

“I’ve picked up a lot over the years, and the single most important thing I can do in my job is to hire a lot of great people.”

With Urmy, Brand says, “What you see is what you get. He’s had to play the bad guy in enough cases. But he’s an anchor to the institution. He has no agenda, he’s just here to do a good job.”

And, his assistant Shelia Gad says, he’s cool, even without the jacket.