Jim Nathan admits he will have to learn how to have fun. He started volunteering in healthcare in grade school and landed his first job at age 13. After four decades with Lee Health — 32 as CEO — Nathan hasn’t planned much for retirement beyond cleaning out his garage and closets (although his wife, Karen, has planned trips to keep him busy through mid-September).

“I have done virtually nothing to prepare for my next life,” confesses Nathan, sitting around a small conference table in his successor’s office on his last official day as CEO. The following day, June 1, he would transition to “on call” status as Dr. Larry Antonucci stepped into Lee Health’s top job.

Antonucci came to Fort Myers in 1983 and built a successful obstetrics and gynecology practice before co-founding physicians Primary Care, a multi-specialty group practice where he served as CEO. In 2007, he joined Lee Health, serving as chief administrator for Cape Coral Hospital before becoming Lee Health’s chief operating officer — Nathan’s right-hand man — in 2011.

“He has the emotional intelligence and leadership skills to manage an unbelievably diverse organization,” Nathan says of his handpicked successor. “You have to leave the ego at the door and realize this is all about bringing people together to do great things.”

Nathan, who’s known for his propensity to work long hours and weekends, says Antonucci is “smarter” and will be able to get things done more efficiently. Antonucci isn’t sure he agrees with that assessment and is prepared to put in long days like his mentor.

“I’m used to working all the time,” Antonucci says. “It’s a passion. You do it because you want to make a difference.”

He’s worked alongside Nathan for the last 10 years: “The mentorship, friendship and the trust are something I’ll carry with me forever, and it has prepared me to step in.”

Nathan timed his retirement announcement carefully, planning around several major milestones for Lee Health.He wanted to follow through with the $100 million capital campaign for Golisano Children’s Hospital, and he was thereto celebrate its grand opening on April 1. One of his last public appearances as CEO was during the May 18 groundbreaking ceremony for Lee Health Coconut Point, where Estero Mayor Jim Boesch led the crowd in a standing ovation for Nathan,r recognizing his persistence in bringing better healthcare to south Lee County.

“I was destined to do this,” Nathan says, back at the office on his last day as CEO.

His involvement with healthcare started from day one as he was treated for minor birth defects. As a youngster,h is memories are pervaded by frequent hospital visits to see his father, who had several health challenges including tuberculosis. When his father was quarantined for two years in a sanatorium, young Jim started a short-wave radio talk show to entertain his dad and other patients. As a third grader,h e raised funds for the American Cancer Society and the American Lung Association by charging 25-cents admission to view movies in his garage.

Although his father was frequently ill, he was a hard worker and ambitious, opening his own auto leasing business, where Nathan got his first job at age 13.

“His business acumen and the work ethic he had given tome merged with my passion for the healthcare environment and culture,” explains Nathan.

When he came to Lee Memorial Hospital in 1975, it was to fulfill the practicum requirement for his masters degree in Health Administration. He had no idea this “one-year stint” would turn into a career spanning more than four decades.By June 1976, Nathan had accepted a role as Vice President for Institutional Services for this inner-city hospital lacking a sufficient population of commercially insured patients to sustain it.

Over the next 15 years, Nathan — who became CEO in 1982 — led Lee Memorial through dramatic growth as it became a health system, opening Health Park Medical Center and acquiring Cape Coral Hospital. He left Lee Memorial for three years in the late 1990’s to pursue national health reform but returned in 2000.

In the early 2000’s, Lee Memorial Health System opened the Regional Cancer Center and acquired SW Florida Regional Medical Center and Gulf Coast Hospital — merging them into Gulf Coast Medical Center. Both of these facilities are now undergoing major expansions.

Recent years have brought the expansion of behavioral health services, the opening of the Healthy Life Center at Coconut Point and the unveiling of America’s newest children’s hospital. Lee Health recently completed the three most financially successful years in its history, Nathan adds.

The health system is in good shape as Antonucci takes the helm. Lee Health Foundation recorded more than 14,000 donors for its most recent capital campaign, and Lee Health boasts more than 4,000 volunteers.

However, the CEO transition is not the only turnover for Lee Health’s leadership team to manage. Four other executives are retiring this summer, each with 19 to 40 years of service with Lee Health, including Lee Health’s top nursing officer, Donna Giannuzzi, who was Cape Coral Hospital’s first nurse. For Nathan, succession planning was a critical factor in timing his exit. He needed to ensure there was a capable replacement for each of the retiring executives first.

“I’ve worked really hard to make this a smooth transition,” says Nathan, confident in Antonucci’s ability to seamlessly step in. As COO, Antonucci was responsible for leading patient care at all Lee Health facilities, including operations for its six hospitals.

“The future is providing care at a higher quality and at a lower cost — status quo is not going to make it,” says Lee Health’s new CEO as he assesses the tasks ahead. “We really do have the position of creating a model of care here that will be the envy of the country.”

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