New CEO aims for highest rankings in innovation and research for OSU Wexner Medical Center.

In a high-pressure, high-visibility job like running one of the largest medical enterprises in the state, you might not expect to find an easygoing, unassuming personality. That's just one of the ways Dr. Sheldon Retchin presents a surprising new face at the helm of the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.

The new head of the university's health system offers an open, creative mind and a positive attitude to the work of running an operation that includes a highly regarded medical school, a system of specialty and general hospitals combined with research-focused faculty and medical providers.

Ask Retchin about challenges he's faced and he reclassifies them as "opportunities." Inquire as to what keeps him up at night and he defers to say what gets him up in the morning.

The executive vice president of health sciences for the university and CEO of the medical center brings a slight southern inflection and a relaxed manner to the position he assumed in March 2015, but don't let his laidback demeanor fool you. He's been plenty busy rebuilding the OSU health system's leadership team, and he has ambitious ideas for growing the medical center both in terms of physical plant and reputation.

"It's a new day, and we're very optimistic and enthusiastic about the future of healthcare and our role in advancing new technologies, new breakthroughs and new drug discoveries," Retchin says.

"Where we see our role is to bring the cutting edge to Columbus, new technologies, new discoveries, and be a part of that. That's our role and we believe is our differentiating contribution. … It's in discovery and research where we're going. It certainly doesn't keep me up at night; it gets me up in the morning," he adds.

And it really excites Retchin to team up with other disciplines.

"One of the things I didn't have since Chapel Hill days was the multi-disciplinary interactions with professionals, particularly among the faculty, who are in other fields, not biologic-music, English, business, engineering and the proximity for that. … It just really just promotes enormous synergy. So that's been really cool," Retchin says.

Chapel Hill, or more precisely the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, is where Retchin earned all of his academic degrees-a bachelor's in psychology, a master's of science in public health and his medical degree-after growing up about 150 miles away in Wilmington, N.C.

Staying south, Retchin did his medical residency at the Medical College of Virginia in Richmond, serving as chief resident in internal medicine. Then he returned to Chapel Hill to accept a prestigious appointment as a Robert Wood Johnson Clinical Scholar, an opportunity then afforded to only about 20 individuals nationwide a year. The appointment, aimed at training future medical leaders, ended up setting the course for Retchin's career on the academic and research side of medicine. He got his master's of public health degree in epidemiology while back at Chapel Hill and joined the faculty as well.

Before long, the Medical College of Virginia came calling and persuaded Retchin to return to start a geriatrics program. He stayed for 30 years, accepting increasingly more ambitious challenges. In 1993, he was appointed as a physician executive to create and run a group medical practice for the college's faculty.

The Richmond hospital had been spun off from the university in 1995, but there was overlap between boards for the university and the hospital. In 2000, Retchin took a proposal to the university president to merge the faculty practice with the hospital "and then put some doctors on the board, which was really a good thing to do, and we created a health system in 2000, and in 2002 they asked me to be CEO of the health system," Retchin explains. That was the position he left to come to OSU.

That Retchin ended up in medicine at all, let alone in a high-level corporate position, was not something he initially set out to do.

"Medicine came along relatively late in my undergraduate choices," he recalls. "Today you shadow doctors. Back then I'd never been in a doctor's office other than (for) a checkup."

If he had gone into the family business, it would have meant running a retail furniture store, Retchin says.

"I was drawn to medicine, I guess, because of the opportunity to figure things out and help people and be creative. Medicine just seemed to have lots of potential," he adds. He was particularly intrigued by technological developments that were emerging, such as with medical imaging and CAT scans.

"I wasn't interested in business at the time. I wasn't interested in law; my father was a lawyer. So I could've just gone out and gotten a job, I guess. (Medicine) just seemed like a natural thing. Obviously, I didn't know where it would take me."

Being open to opportunity and following his intuition as a creative problem-solver has served Retchin-and his profession-well. His inventive side has also produced a few patents for a device that he says was truly mothered by necessity. Originally called the SwimP3-a play on the MP3 technology popular at the time-Retchin's invention allows swimmers to listen to their favorite music while in the pool and even underwater.

In his early college years, Retchin says he was a gym rat who played a lot of basketball. He initially failed a swimming test, recalling, "I almost drowned. They required you to get in a pool and swim three lengths, 75 yards, and they had to pull me out of the pool. So I had to take a swimming course." But by medical school in the mid-1970s, he began swimming regularly for exercise "because it was just really efficient … and kept me in shape."

Retchin was ready to give up his swimming routine out of boredom 30 years later until he started thinking about something from his medical training called the Weber Test, in which a tuning fork is placed on someone's skull to test their hearing. He consulted an engineer to develop his theory of transmitting music through bone conduction, which generates sound by vibrating the fluid of the inner ear. Retchin's creation was hailed as revolutionary when it hit the market in 2005.

Now it's sold by a company called FINIS as Neptune and is available online for about $90. The royalties Retchin receives aren't enough to "get me to quit my day job," but they will help with expenses as his twin sons head off to college at Columbia University this fall, he says.

Retchin says he can't swim now without the device, and he credits it with reconnecting him to his passion for music. Classic rock artists like Eric Clapton, the Rolling Stones, the Eagles, Paul Simon, the Beatles, and Sting are among those whose music he downloads for his swims. He also follows newer artists including Rob Thomas and Matchbox Twenty and Maroon 5 and Adam Levine, as well as Sara Bareilles and Alicia Keys. "I'm a big fan of a guy who actually grew up in Richmond. His name is Jason Mraz. He's won a couple of Grammies. He has a very unique style," Retchin says.

Another-albeit lesser known-artist popular with Retchin is his wife, Tracy, a classically trained pianist, singer and songwriter who has recorded a CD of her own and played at small venues in Richmond. She is a lawyer by profession and works for Columbus Mayor Andrew Ginther as senior policy advisor and chief ethics officer. Before moving to Columbus with her husband, she had served as policy advisor to Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe.

Retchin's own musical talent comes out on the harmonica. He has been known to accompany his wife for a few tunes at her gigs and even ripped off a quick blues number at a 2014 Virginia Commonwealth University invocation ceremony for new physicians in Richmond. Retchin says he has not had the opportunity to play music with OSU President and fellow physician Michael Drake, but he hopes to someday break out his harmonica with Drake's guitar.

In the meantime, there is much to keep Retchin busy at the medical center. His initial focus involved recruiting a new leadership team. Those he has brought in include:

• David McQuaid, chief operating officer of the medical center who's also CEO of the health system, formerly of Jefferson Medical College at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia.

• Mark Larmore, chief financial officer of the medical center, from New York-Presbyterian Hospital in New York.

• Mamoon Syed, director of human resources of the medical center, from the children's hospital in San Diego.

• Anne Garcia, senior association vice president, serving as general counsel for the medical center, from Saint Louis University.

• Craig Kent, starting after Labor Day as dean of the medical school, from the University of Wisconsin.

• Dr. Cheryl Lee, chair of the department of urology.

• Dr. Timothy Pawlik, chair of the department of surgery.

"Those were opportunities to bring in new ideas, new experiences, new expertise," Retchin says. "There's a lot of key positions I've filled. I'm very excited about the team," he adds.

His effort in recruiting top talent has slowed down a bit, but Retchin also knows from experience, "You're never really done. I recruited a lot of people in Richmond in my 12 years but it was always a cycle."

Drawing top medical talent to OSU bears some similarities to the work of the university's more familiar recruiters-Football Coach Urban Meyer and Men's Basketball Coach Thad Matta. "It is competitive, just like athletics, so that's in there. You've got to beat someone else out, and you don't know who you're beating out. You don't know who you're up against. There are a lot of similarities to that. But here I think it's a little more complicated," Retchin says.

Attracting a top physician or medical researcher is a more long-term proposition and can even involve capital expenses as part of the deal. "They're not building a new stadium for a (football) recruit. You could build a whole new lab tower for a (medical research) team. Some places do," he adds.

OSU just opened the new James Cancer Hospital shortly before Retchin began and now is renovating the former James as a brain and spine hospital. It recently opened a 100,000-square-foot ambulatory center in Upper Arlington and soon will open the new Jameson Crane Sports Medicine Institute, expected to be the largest multidisciplinary sports center in the country.

Even so, Retchin foresees the need for more building in the next five to 10 years. "There are some facilities that either need to be replaced or expanded that we're going to be looking at. We'll probably need more research space. I don't think there's any doubt about that if we're going to grow," he says.

The goal Retchin is pursuing now is one he says is part of shared strategy and planning with others at the university.

"I stayed in academic medicine for a reason all these years, so one particular goal I have is to make Ohio State a place where innovation and research are really top of the chart," Retchin says. "So that's one goal, and I picked that first for a purpose. I think it's a differentiating future for us," he adds.

That means growing research, especially federally funded research, he says. Grants from the National Institutes of Health already comprise the largest single source of funding for the medical center at about 50 percent, and Retchin sees that funding growing even larger as he witnesses "a bipartisan appeal, I think, for the NIH to grow now." He notes President Barack Obama's announced $1 billion Moonshot Initiative to cure cancer is part of the drive to beef up NIH funding.

Retchin gets fired up talking about the potential for innovation and research he sees at OSU. "There are areas where we excel-of course cancer and also in cardiovascular diseases and neurosciences, in genomics, in emerging pathogens. ... I think addictive medicine is an area where Ohio State should play a strong role. Some of it also will be health policy; I think there we can play a leading role, both in Columbus and in Washington."

Early indications are moving north to Columbus has been good for Retchin and his family. As his sons finished high school here, they "had the best year in school that they've ever had. My (adult) daughter is delighted that she decided to move up here, too, so that's cool," Retchin says.

A self-described rabid sports fan, Retchin enjoys Buckeyes athletics and vows he will "always root for OSU, even over UNC." He finds it ironic that in his first year at Ohio State, the Buckeyes beat VCU in the NCAA tournament, "and it was Shaka Smarts' last game (after six years as VCU's men's basketball coach). OSU sent him to Texas. You never know how these things will turn out."

Q&A

Was there something that called to you about medicine?

We had a family business that I didn't want to go back to. It was furniture. We had a retail furniture store in the family. I was drawn to medicine, I guess, because of the opportunity to figure things out and help people and be creative. Medicine just seemed to have lots of potential.

You've been here 18 months. How does what you've encountered so far match your expectations?

I would say in most respects it's exceeded my expectations, particularly when it comes to the people. The talent that is here at the medical center and beyond, Ohio State's an incredible place. The talent is really extraordinary.

You've recruited a number of people from outside Ohio. How was it to sell Ohio State to them?

Fun, totally fun. Everybody knows Ohio State. You know it's fun to sell the opportunity and the chemistry that's here already and get somebody excited about not just what's here but what's possible. That's fun.

With much of the medical center's funding in federal grants, are there concerns with this year's presidential elections?

What better timing is there-forget politics-what better timing is there than now for really pushing ahead with the application for genomics? It's incredible, the stuff that's on the horizon. Some of the stuff that's going on in the James and the application of genomics toward curing cancer, developing new targets, new drugs, is state of the art. The James and the cancer center are truly gems in Columbus. I know the community appreciates it but it is an extraordinary place with remarkable discoveries going on every day.

What is your impression of Pelotonia?

It's unique. I think it's confirmation again that people have been touched by the James and by the cancer center here. Once given the opportunity, the interest is contagious. I'd only been here a few months that I went to the Pelotonia for the initial gathering (the night before the ride at Columbus Commons). My jaw dropped. I just couldn't believe it. When I saw those people out there, I thought, 'Whoa, this is different.' If you had told me it would be a bike ride that would do this? They've certainly tapped into something.

One particular goal I have is to make Ohio State a place where innovation and research are really top of the chart.

Mary Yost is the editor.