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New Cleveland Clinic chief Dr. Tomislav Mihaljevic perplexed friends by leaving Harvard for the North Coast: My Cleveland (photos)

April 26, 2018

New Cleveland Clinic chief Dr. Tomislav Mihaljevic perplexed friends by leaving Harvard for the North Coast: My Cleveland (photos)

CLEVELAND, Ohio -- After moving from Croatia to Switzerland to Austria to Boston to Cleveland to Abu Dhabi, Dr. Tomislav Mihaljevic came back to Cleveland on January 1, 2018, as president and chief executive officer of the Cleveland Clinic. Mihaljevic (pronounced something like mih-HILE-uh-vich) oversees about 57,000 workers, more than 7 million patient visits a year and more than $8 billion in yearly revenue.

Cleveland creds: Came in 2004, returned after seven years in Abu Dhabi

Currently lives: Downtown

Age: 54

Schooling: University of Zagreb School of Medicine Family: Divorced; fraternal twin daughters live in England

Favorite locally owned restaurants: Fire, Edwins, Marble Room

Hi, doctor.

Tomislav: Call me Tom.

OK, Tom, could you tell us about your journey to the top of what’s by far Cleveland’s biggest organization?

Tom: I was born in Zagreb and raised there until I was 27. I left during the war. My family all survived. I go back there frequently.

I went to Austria to learn German and worked as a nurse assistant. Then I went to Zurich for my residency.

I always knew that the United States was the land of opportunity. I wanted to see for myself. I got into programs at Harvard’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

After 10 years, I came to the Clinic 14 years ago. For most of my colleagues in Boston, it’s always perplexing: “Why would you leave Harvard and move to Cleveland?”

First, this is the best place in cardiac surgery in the world. I was amazed they’d even want to talk to a simple boy from Croatia.

Here’s the episode that convinced me this is a special place: A physician assistant was at the hotel here to bring me to [CEO] Toby Cosgrove’s office. We go through the skyway. There’s a patient who’s clearly lost: an elderly lady looking around. The assistant told me, “Please stay here.” He took the lady by the hand to where she needed to go and came back for me five, 10 minutes later.

For a Clevelander, “What’s the big deal?” It’s kind of second nature here. But that would never ever happen at most other hospitals. People look down at their feet and march in a straight line.

Is the sprawling Clinic so chummy?

Tom: The people here are nice. If I just come to the hospital, I’m put in a good mood.

Most people here are lifers. Each of our physicians only has a one-year contract. That allows us to maintain very high quality. We have one of the lowest turnovers in the industry The Clinic sees some of the most complex medical cases from all over the world. That fosters teamwork and innovation.

You spent the past seven years launching a branch of the Clinic on an island in Abu Dhabi. What was that like?

Tom: Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi is the largest healthcare project worldwide. It’s the first truly American hospital outside the U.S. It’s about a 4.4 million-square-foot facility. It’s as big as about a third of our main campus here.

We built an organization from scratch, hired about 5,000 employees from 80 different countries. We opened only three years ago. We have a full transplant program and robotic services that never really were provided in other parts of the world. We have transformed the lives of thousands and thousands of patients in a very short period.

And it carries the Cleveland name. If you ask a cab driver in Abu Dhabi for the best hospital in town, he’ll say “I’ll take you to Cleveland.” They do not use “Clinic.” They just use “Cleveland.” So “Cleveland” is becoming synonymous with the highest possible quality care.

In London they call it “The Cleveland.” “They’re building the Cleveland here.” It’s in the heart of the city, right across from Buckingham Palace. They promise we’ll see our first patient there on the centennial of the first patient seen here on Euclid Avenue in February 1921.

Your goals for the Clinic overall?

Tom: Our goal is to become indisputably the best place for health care anywhere. We have to continue to change and improve to serve our patients better. We have to continue to grow. We have an ethical obligation to touch as many lives as possible.

We just signed up Union Hospital in Dover, our 11th regional hospital. We have a presence in Toronto. We’re growing in Nevada and Florida. We’re looking at Vero Beach and Martin Health in Stuart, Fla.

We have a plan for further gradual development of our campus in Cleveland. We’re building the Health Education Campus here [in conjunction with Case Western Reserve University]. It’s a novel concept. We’re putting four types of schools under the same roof: medical, dental, nursing and physician assistant. We’re going to teach the future caregivers to work as a team. We’re going to offer things that didn’t exist five, 10 years ago like healthcare information technology, healthcare finance, healthcare management.

All the growth anywhere ultimately brings resources and jobs to Cleveland and increases our ability to serve our community.

What else do you do for the community?

Tom: We hire a lot from the neighborhoods. We recently hired a local co-op, Evergreen, for all our laundry.

We give high school students summer internships. We have a variety of family health centers. We’re expanding that into schools with mobile bus units and education about healthy lifestyles.

Where do you live?

Tom: I used to live in Hunting Valley. I sold the house in September and moved downtown. I was amazed to see how much downtown has changed for the better. I can walk to the Q and the restaurants. But I’m about to move closer to the Clinic.

I’m here most of my waking hours. I could not imagine living in a city where I’d be stuck in traffic for 2 ½ hours each way. I could not imagine thinking four days in advance about where am I going to have dinner or get a ticket to a concert. Cleveland has everything important to me, and it’s accessible. There’s no fuss. There’s a balance that I can’t find any place else.

We say we’re from Cleveland, and people raise their eyebrows. Most Clevelanders get into defense mode and say, “It’s a great place to live.” I stopped doing that. There’s no need to explain.

In your little spare time, where do you hang out?

Tom: I love to go to the orchestra. I sometimes run along the lake and across the bridges. As the weather warms, I plan to enjoy the many parks around the city, including the Metroparks.  

My favorite locally owned store is on Fairmount: On the Rise. Their scones are a guilty pleasure for Saturdays with coffee. Their sourdough is phenomenal. The baguettes are excellent.

I follow the Cavs. I’m at the games frequently. I’m 6-foot-4. I used to play basketball passionately and poorly.

Will the Clinic’s headquarters ever move to Florida, Abu Dhabi or anywhere else outside the 216?

Tom: We’ll never leave Cleveland. Cleveland is in our name and everything we do. We’re very passionate about our city. Our commitment to our patients is here. We’re not going anywhere.