Finding a cure
Leron Lehman said he’s been drawn to the dynamic atmosphere of start-ups his entire career.
But he's never been involved with a start-up quite like this one.
In January, Lehman will move to the West African country of Niger to become executive director of a hospital being built by Lemoyne-based nonprofit Cure International Inc.
To do so, Lehman, 37, left his position as executive vice president and chief financial officer of Harrisburg-based Probity Medical Transcription Inc. The company provides medical transcription and document management services.
"Mark Bush, (Cure's) chief operating officer, told us early on that it will be the most challenging - but also the most rewarding - thing I'd ever done," Lehman said. "I fully expect that to be the case."
Lehman will work with the hospital's medical director, Lebanon County-based anesthesiologist Dr. Gary Roark, who is expected to move to Africa this spring.
An accounting major at Messiah College, Lehman's career has included two stints totaling more than a decade at East Pennsboro Township-based accounting firm Brown Schultz Sheridan and Fritz, rising to the level of partner.
He also has served in leadership positions at a New Jersey telecommunications start-up and at Lancaster-based Mission Research, a venture-backed software and Web services company.
So how does one go from certified public accountant to hospital administrator in a Third World country?
Lehman said he enjoyed his time in the corporate world, but "at the same time, there was always something missing. I wanted to feel like I was doing something a little more significant, making a difference."
He said he decided to approach Cure International, a faith-based nonprofit that builds pediatric specialty hospitals to serve disabled children in the developing world. Cure also trains other medical professionals at its facilities.
"I initiated the conversation just because I really liked the organization and wasn't really sure there was an opportunity for, essentially, a businessperson," Lehman said. "But (I) figured, who knows?"
He didn't specifically request to head a new hospital, but both Cure and Lehman said the assignment fit well.
"It's amazing the way things come together, because from a professional and business standpoint, it certainly brings in that whole start-up experience," Lehman said.
And Lehman said he has a love-hate relationship with start-ups.
"A lot of it's just basic blocking and tackling. It's a grind, a daily grind of stuff that isn't necessarily that fun," Lehman said "When you step back and you put it all together ... it's awful, but it's so rewarding."
The new hospital - Cure's 11th worldwide - will be in the capital city of Niamey and will specialize in pediatric orthopedics. Cure expects to perform about 1,000 surgeries there per year, spokesman Noel Lloyd said.
Niger in 2008 had a per capita gross domestic product of $700 - compared with $47,500 in the United States - making it one of the poorest countries in the world.
The children whom the hospital will be serving are at the bottom of that pyramid, Lehman said.
Niger is slightly less than twice the size of Texas, most of it desert, so the country is prone to devastating droughts.
Per-capita health care spending in Niger totals $10, compared with $7,000 in the United States, Lehman said. The United Nations' latest Human Development Index ranked Niger dead last out of 182 countries.
"The health care system almost doesn't exist (there). And as a practical matter for the children we're going to be serving, it really doesn't," Lehman said.
Lehman has agreed to a three-year stint. He will move to the country with his wife, Christine, and their three children, ages 12, 10 and 9.
To get ready, Lehman said he's working to sell the family's house, dusting off his high-school French and learning the local culture and hiring practices.
Niger gained independence from France in 1960, so its legal system is based on the French one. It's had a democratic government since 1993, with the exception of the period between 1996 and 1999, according to the Central Intelligence Agency's Web site.
Lehman acknowledges there's only so much he can do to get ready for his trip, especially when it comes to mentally gearing up for the change.
"I think I would look back and think I was naïve if I pretended I knew how to prepare," Lehman said. "I really don't. I think we've intentionally not set a ton of expectations."
The hospital, on a 5-acre campus, will have two operating rooms and 24 beds. Construction is slated to be complete in February, the hospital will hire staff through the spring and summer, with surgeries beginning in the fall. It's expected to have about 50 employees.
The facility will have fees based on what patients are able to pay, which will be much less than the actual cost of providing care, Lloyd said.
Lehman will blog about his experience at www.leronlehman.com. His wife and children also might join in from time to time.
He said he's excited about the opportunity to use his business acumen to help patients.
"For us to be able to take those children and totally change their entire lives, give them the ability to be a productive member of society," he said. "We're not even doing it yet, and there's tremendous satisfaction for me in that we get to be a part of totally transforming these kids' lives."