Justus Smith’s path to his current role as Chief Executive Officer of Plateau Medical Center in Oak Hill, WV is interesting, inspiring, and includes threads of UC woven throughout the story.
Justus was raised in Beckley, WV and completed his high school education through a home school program after contracting mononucleosis disease in the 8th grade. “I never had any plans of going to college, I figured I would work a trade. I had finished high school and was happy working in construction making $7 per hour with some of my buddies. Then, through mutual friends, I met my now wife, Hollie.”
“As our relationship got more serious, my mom, dad, and grandparents started asking what I was going to do with my life. When we were serious enough that we were talking marriage, I thought ‘If I want to get married, I’m going to have to make more than $7 per hour.’ It was close to that time that I was at work one day, standing in front of a barrel warmer in the winter, putting siding on a house thinking, ‘there has to be something better than this.’”
Justus knew he liked work that involved his hands and was willing to work hard. He thought the mining industry would fit his personality and his needs. However, the mining industry in southern West Virginia at that time was experiencing a decline and open jobs became very difficult to find.
Recognizing Justus’ struggle, Hollie’s mother and aunt, who were both nurses, encouraged him to explore nursing school. “They said to me, ‘Justus, you could go for two years, get your associate degree, and start making good money. Nursing provides a lot of different paths for you to advance your career.’ So, I started my journey to nursing school.”
“Hollie was already enrolled at UC, and I had been accepted to Bluefield State College’s nursing program. I wanted to do as many of the prerequisite, lower-level classes as quickly as I could. So, I started taking classes at several schools to maximize my schedule. I took my microbiology class at UC and some other courses at West Virginia State College. My goal was to start the difficult part of nursing school with as many classes already complete as possible. I was still working full time, too.”
In 1998, Justus and Hollie married at the prettiest venue in town. You guessed it, the UC Lawn. “It was beautiful. She was beautiful. We were both working and full-time nursing students, but Hollie got a discount because she was a student. UC really took care of us, and we had a wonderful wedding.”
Hollie graduated with her associate degree in nursing, UC class of 1999, and Justus completed his from Bluefield State, class of 2000.
Justus then began his nursing career at Beckley Appalachian Regional Healthcare (ARH) Hospital, taking the night shift in the ICU. “I graduated on a Friday and went to work on a Monday. I worked there for about a year and a half before I took and passed the West Virginia Civil Service exam to become a firefighter. I applied for positions in Charleston and Beckley and accepted the Charleston offer. I was there a couple of years before transferring to the Beckley department, getting closer to home.”
In late 2005, Justus was continuing his role as a fire fighter but added a few nursing shifts at Plateau Medical Center to his schedule. “I wanted to pick up a couple shifts to brush up on my skills. I started thinking about going back to school to complete a Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist (CRNA) program so, I worked in the ICU and did cross training in the ER. Then the leadership opportunities began, and the Chief Nursing Officer (CNO) asked if I would like to become a supervisor.”
Justus continued working as a fire fighter in addition to the full-time supervisor role and maintained both positions until the hospital, again, asked Justus to elevate his responsibilities. Plateau Medical Center had plans to open a new orthopedics department and charged Justus with directing the venture. At that point, it was not feasible to hold two full time positions and he made the choice to commit his time to the hospital.
“Eventually, opportunities just came more and more with health care. I was offered leadership positions and was managing several clinical departments at the hospital when I thought, ‘If I’m going to do upper management, I am going to have to advance my education.’ So, I went back to school and completed a bachelor’s degree in nursing at West Virginia University. As soon as that was finished, my next goal was to get a master’s degree.”
“I was leaning towards the anesthesia program, but Hollie and I felt that would be too much of a commitment with working full time and having two young daughters. Because I was already in a middle management leadership position, I thought, ‘I could be a CEO at some point’. That is when my search for an MBA program began.”
Justus started looking for a well-established, brick and mortar school with a strong reputation. The program also had to fit with his current career and young family. “UC was a good fit. Plus, we have some history there and always pleased with our experiences.”
There were three individuals from the Plateau Hospital staff that were interested in the program. Rick Ferris, UC professor and former MBA Program Director, made a trip to Oak Hill to visit with them and answer any questions. Two of the three entered the program and completed their degrees in 2015, Justus being one of them, of course. “I loved it, of all the schools I attended and degree programs I have been a part of my experience in the UC MBA program was by far my favorite.”
“Not having a traditional high school experience or parents who had attended college, it was difficult for me when I started going through the process of applying and scheduling classes. The UC faculty were the best, they knew what they were talking about and made the entire process of getting admitted and registered hassle free. They went out of their way to help you as a student, just like Rick went out of his way to come meet with us. I’ve stayed in touch with him for the last five years. You don’t get that type of relationship with your teachers anywhere else.”
“The program opens the door for opportunities, you must do the work and you must put in the time, but you can’t get the door open without the MBA degree. It got me where I am today.”
Since completing his MBA degree in 2015, Justus has served as Director of ICU, Telemetry, Medsurg, OBS, Orthopedics, and Emergency Management, Director of Surgery, Chief Nursing Officer, and as of this August, Chief Executive Officer.
When asked what his future goals are he replied, “I’d love to stay here, we are a small hospital, but we are extremely successful! We are a four-star hospital, we have the highest patient satisfaction experience scores in the area, and we are busy. We do about 400 surgery cases a month and see over 1,000 patients in the ER. So, yes, it’s small but it’s a high performing facility. I love the Fayette County people and I believe a hospital should be a vital part of the community. It should be an open door, welcoming place. We have a lot of things planned for this fall including a trunk-or-treat and Christmas party. It’s important that we give back.”
Justus and Hollie stay busy utilizing their degrees, making an impact in their community, and raising their daughters who are eighteen and twelve.
Congratulations, Justus, on all your success and living out the UC mission to live a life of productive work, enlightened living, and COMMUNITY INVOLVEMENT!