Bonnie O’Neil wraps up 50 years with Riverwood

Bonnie O’Neil

Bonnie O’Neil wasn’t looking for a job when she was admitted to the Aitkin Community Hospital in Aitkin in 1973. She had suffered a broken leg in a snowmobile accident and was in traction in the hospital for 100 days.

During her follow-up care at the clinic, which at that time was staffed by only two physicians, Drs. Carson and Hover, she was offered a job at the Ripple River Medical Center. She joined Office Manager Kathy Larson and Judie Jones in running the clinic office. Over the next 25 years, O’Neil moved into other roles including office manager and interim clinic manager.

Fifty years later, O’Neil is retiring from her position as clinical information analyst with Riverwood Healthcare Center’s information technology (IT) department, effective April 1.

Early clinic experience

O’Neil comments, “In my early days, our small independent clinic staff did everything. We made appointments, checked in patients, did the filing, and billed the insurance companies and the patients. Part of the responsibilities could include taking care of a new baby while the mom is being seen by the doctor or ‘hold down’ a child that is getting an immunization/injection.  Even cleaning the lobby and appointment desk after a patient came in bleeding was part of the job duties.

“Back in the 70’s and early 80’s, if a patient was injured during the day, they came to the clinic to be treated, no matter how serious. The hospital was just north of the clinic and if needed the patient would be put in a wheelchair and one of us would wheel the patient to the hospital, uphill!  Once every two weeks I would write up a bill for Aitkin Family Services of all the Medical Assistance patients that had come in.  I would bring the bill to them during my lunch hour, they would cut me a check and I would bring it back for deposit.

“In the beginning there were very limited insurances but as time went on, we manually typed each insurance claim and mailed them to the insurances, without errors.  I remember receiving payments from New York Blue Shield with an address of ‘One World Trade Center, New York, New York’. ”

O’Neil attributes her strong work ethic to her experience with Ripple River Medical Center.

“Our goal was to serve our patients the best we could, work hard and smart, enjoy what we were doing and who we were working with,” she explains. “Some of my coworkers from the early days are still involved with Riverwood Healthcare in one form or another, including Vicky Jacobson, Julie Landrus, Judie Jones, Gwen Dickey, Dr. Tom Lawson, Dr. Chuck Schotzko, Becky Monse, Dr. Don Hughes.”

O’Neil cites Floyd Snodgrass, hospital administrator from 1959 to 1976, as an early inspirational mentor.

“Floyd had a strong commitment to keeping excellent health care in the Aitkin County area. The clinic is here today because of his belief and the community support he helped gather. Since that time, his vision and dreams of having a progressive, exceptional quality and committed health care in Aitkin County and surrounding communities is evident today and continues to be the leading healthcare facility in the country.

“Ripple River Medical Center and Riverwood Healthcare has been a family affair. At the clinic, my kids helped shred, move boxes of charts and even shovel the snow. My mom, Marge Johnson, was an active Auxiliary member who adored Riverwood and all the employees; she volunteered in the cafeteria every week for many years. My brother, Scott Johnson, and his wife, Jodie, formed the Zach Johnson Kids with Cancer fund through Riverwood Foundation to support families in Aitkin and Crow Wing Counties who are battling cancer, like their son, Zach, did.”

Transition to information technology
In 2003, O’Neil joined Riverwood’s IT team, where she became involved with supporting electronic health record systems, including five implementations for Meditech, LSS, eClinical Works, Allina Epic and lastly, OCHIN Epic.

“I thoroughly enjoyed transitioning into the IT area. In the beginning, when electronic health records was pretty new in health care, Riverwood and the board took a progressive stand to improve health care for our patients, providers, and staff by implementing it in the hospital in 2004, followed by the clinics and other departments in 2005.

“This major initiative took vision, time, energy, commitment, resources, and a lot of hard work but has all paid off over the years. Much of the move to electronic health records was led by Dr. Tim Arnold, Riverwood’s chief medical information officer and family physician at the McGregor Clinic. I believe that Dr. Arnold is our own Nostradamus; looking to the future, he believed electronic health records was needed to achieve the highest level of health care for our patients and their families, as well as to help Riverwood remain competitive in the state. He has been our provider champion and has led us through the implementations.

“I’ve been happy to play a role in supporting this important function. I especially enjoyed working with the providers and staff one-on-one on IT issues.  Helping them solve an issue or train them on something new and improved was my cup of tea.

“Ending my career with our current IT department is bittersweet. I’ve worked with most of our team in one way or another for 21 years, including Rob Harmon as my manager for the past five years. We are truly a family.”

O’Neil shares an example of the unity displayed by IT team members. “During Covid, our department sent baskets to different health care workers, and everyone was very generous. Our techs worked on site every day during that stressful time. Nicole Hawkinson, Judy Christy, Heather Rikala and I decided to put together baskets for the wives of our techs.  I think it came as quite an unexpected and appreciated surprise.”

Career longevity
She concludes, “During my career I wore many hats–from general office work, filing, transcriptionist, insurance and patient billing, collections, medical records, clinic manager—and finally IT clinical information analyst. I learned from the best. Riverwood Healthcare Center has topnotch staff and leaders.

“I stayed in healthcare for 50 years because of my desire to help people. I feel I have achieved that goal and have had the pleasure to work with the best and brightest peers and health care leaders. Now it is time for me to spend time with my family, especially grandkids, and friends. I walk away with the belief that I did make a difference.”

IT Manager Rob Harmon shares his appreciation of Bonnie’s many contributions to the IT team: “I have worked with Bonnie for the past 21 years in some capacity or another, as her manager for the last five years. I couldn’t ask for a better person to work with when it comes to her willingness to step up and lead or be part of a team effort. She also genuinely cares about her co-workers and treats us like family members.

“Bonnie has been instrumental in many major projects over her years with Riverwood, supporting a lot of change and growth for the hospital and clinics. Most recently she helped us migrate to a new electronic health record host (OCHIN) and her knowledge and experience in that project was one of the keys to our success. She has been the IT liaison to our previous host (Allina) for the last eight years as well as being involved with several other electronic health record systems. We will miss Bonnie greatly but are also very happy that she is choosing to spend time enjoying her life outside of work!”

Chief Information Officer Mark Waind adds, “I have had the opportunity to work with Bonnie for about 14 months and from the start I noticed her willingness to help others, her knowledge of and dedication to Riverwood. All these attributes have been needed during our recent OCHIN Epic implementation; we couldn’t have accomplished this successful go live without Bonnie’s assistance. She has been an excellent IT team member, and she will be missed.”