A life of service: City salutes retiring Huntsville Hospital CEO David Spillers

single-meta-cal July 1, 2021

From the very beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, David Spillers has been one of the most prominent and trusted sources on the coronavirus in our community.

The Huntsville Hospital CEO’s quiet, calm demeanor gave confidence to the Huntsville-area metro during the dark days of the pandemic. Spillers’ knowledge and guidance not only helped citizens manage the virus, but inspired local leaders like Mayor Tommy Battle as well.

David Spillers speaks at COVID-19 news conference

Huntsville Hospital CEO David Spillers addresses media at a COVID-19 news conference on March 13, 2020.

“I’ll never forget talking to David the first couple of months of the pandemic when they lost $50 million in revenues because of canceled surgeries and a whole lot of other things,” Battle said. “But they did it, because they are a community hospital. They weren’t here to make sure they had good quarterly statements – they were here to make sure they were servicing the community.”

Spillers, 62, retires this week after 15 years with the Huntsville Hospital Health System. A decision more than two years in the making, Spillers’ retirement comes during a period of hope for Huntsville Hospital, which is celebrating record-low COVID-19 hospitalizations and a steady return to normal.

The back story

Although he’s widely known as an authority on COVID-19, Spillers is not a doctor.

The South Carolina native started his career in information technology (IT) for a software company. He later landed his first hospital job as a chief information officer at a facility in Asheville, N.C. Prior to working in Huntsville, Spillers was the chief operating officer of Mission Health, North Carolina’s sixth-largest health system.

While working for Mission Health, Spillers said the organization looked at smaller hospitals throughout the region and how they could complement the large trauma center in Asheville.

“It made sense to do something similar here (in Huntsville),” he said. “About half the patients being treated at the downtown campus came from outside Madison County, so there was a strategic decision made early on to secure those referrals and develop closer relationships with each of those communities.”

In the 15 years since Spillers was recruited to work in Huntsville, the hospital has expanded its services to the region through the development of the Huntsville Hospital Health System. Huntsville Hospital, now the second-largest hospital in Alabama, is the flagship of that system.

Rapid growth

The community-owned, not-for-profit health system includes not only Huntsville Hospital and Huntsville Hospital for Women & Children, but also facilities in Madison, Decatur, Guntersville, Athens, Sheffield, Red Bay and Scottsboro. Additionally, the system operates Caring for Life, an inpatient hospice facility on Serenity Lane in Huntsville.

“There are many days where if we did not have the system we have in place right now, there is no way we could take care of all the patients that would be coming in from across the region,” Spillers said. “The idea that securing the region to help Huntsville was also to make sure we were distributing patients across north Alabama.”

The health system also has a network of primary care physicians and specialists to provide additional services outside the traditional hospital setting. With Huntsville on track to soon become Alabama’s largest city, Spillers said the health system is poised to meet demand.

Looking ahead, Spillers is confident his 15,000 employees and leadership team will expand the hospital appropriately as the community grows.

“We’ve got a lot of engaged, caring individuals,” he said. “Not everybody’s perfect, but I believe top to bottom we have some of the best people in the country who really care about what they’re doing.”

A year like no other

While the past year was one of the most difficult of his career, Spillers said it was “by far the most rewarding.”

He and other area leaders “woke up every morning with a very focused purpose, and that was to take care of our entire region.”

“It was an amazing group of people to work with almost every single day for a year while we managed our way through COVID,” he said. “It was rewarding because none of us had ever experienced that before. A lot of it we were making up along the way, but if you get really smart people together like we had, we were able to come out of it.”

Spillers provides an update on COVID-19 during a community briefing on September 7, 2020, at City Hall.

From the earliest days of the pandemic, Battle said Spillers took the virus seriously. He moved his staff meetings from an in-person setting to virtual and encouraged City administrators to do the same.

“David was worried about the community,” Battle said. “His focus was on getting through the pandemic, and because of that focus, he made our community come through better than any.”

Huntsville Hospital Health System Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer Jeff Samz will replace Spillers. Samz, who joined the system in 2009, worked with Spillers in North Carolina and has been preparing for the transition to CEO for years.

Spillers said he is leaving the health system in good hands as the community continues to recover from COVID-19.

“One of the things I am most proud of in my tenure here is the talent we’ve been able to recruit, develop and retain is pretty phenomenal,” he said. “We’re blessed with generational talent. We are well-prepared for future changes in leadership as people choose to do something different.”

What’s next?

After 40 years of adhering to a schedule, Spillers has very little planned for retirement.

“My entire career, I’ve been very much a workaholic and I had planned out pretty much everything,” he said. “The last 15 years, I didn’t own my schedule – someone else did. I’m looking forward to not having anything planned. I’m looking forward to at least some period of time where my plan is decided in the mornings when I’m drinking my coffee.”

Spillers said he will spend more quality time with his wife, Cindy, and their two rescue dogs in Huntsville. The couple will also visit their beach home on the South Carolina coast and take a few other short-term trips together.

He will also stay on with the hospital part-time to continue building the system through mergers, acquisitions and expansions.

When asked what advice he’d give to aspiring leaders, Spillers encouraged the next generation to work hard and learn as much as they can.

“Most importantly, be nice to people,” he added. “There’s no reason in the world not to come in every day and try to treat people nicely and the way you would like to be treated.”