Mary Keysor: Artful Visionary

Throughout her 30-year career at Maine Medical, Mary Keysor has brought an aesthete's eye, a dietitian's savvy and an accountant's skills to the table.

FoodService Director - Spotlight - Mary KeysorMary Keysor has always applied a trained artist’s eye and a determination to get “it” right when dealing with the details of any projects she’s undertaken. For most of her adult life, those details have been centered around the nutrition-related programs of 600-bed Maine Medical Center (MMC) in Portland. But now, since retiring earlier this month after 30 years at MMC—the last 25 spent as director of the department of food and nutrition services—the details she will be attending to will be on her own time and on projects of her own choosing.

Choosing to retire was a big decision that Keysor put off for the past six years, ever since John Keysor, her college sweetheart and “constant” for 40 years, retired as an administrator at the University of Southern Maine. As this Silver Plate winner (Class of 2002) has discovered: “If you go from what you like to what you don’t know, it’s harder than leaving what you hate.”

Mentor and Mom: What Keysor has known—and loved—throughout her life is design and dietetics, seemingly in equal measure. She began pursuing art in high school in Wisconsin; when one teacher, Mr. Baumgarten, who she deems “a defining figure” in her life, convinced the school to incorporate a college-level art program into the curriculum, she lobbied her parents to allow her to enroll.

“My mother was an elementary school teacher and she had to sign off on the college-bound curriculum so I could take those creative art courses,” Keysor recalls. “She told the counselors it was a way of challenging my creativity. I give my mom credit for seeing the importance of this in my life. Actually, in the early 1900s, my grandmother on my father’s side traveled to the Art Institute of Chicago to train—that was very unusual at the time. I still have some of her work. My mother valued that creativity and continued to nurture that in me the rest of her life.”

Although her father encouraged her “toward something more realistic to get along in this life,” Keysor chose to attend the University of Wisconsin-Stout and planned to major in clothing design. Early on, however, she discovered she liked the sciences, especially chemistry, and that led her to earn her BS degree in dietetics. After completing an internship at Milwaukee County Institutions, she and John, along with their two children, Julie and Scott, moved from Milwaukee to Defiance, Ohio. Since John worked at Defiance College she could attend the university free of charge, so she decided to take art education courses in a degree-accredited program. Although she was providing nutrition consultation through her own business within a local medical clinic, she seriously considered switching her career to art.

In demand: “Then, when John got a job offer in Maine in 1979 and we moved in 1980, I found it was so gorgeous here and there were so many artists—but so few dietitians—I figured I’d stay in a high-demand area,” she laughs.

During the years prior to moving to Maine, Keysor had held various positions in seven facilities, including small hospitals, large hospitals, extended care facilities and a clinic. Still, she was greatly surprised to find herself in demand upon her arrival in the Pine Tree State. Almost immediately, MMC offered her 20 hours a week in the clinic. “I thought part-time work in the outpatient department while raising young children worked well together,” she says. “I loved the job and especially working with my patients, who came from diverse backgrounds. Their lives were more complex than mine and working with them made me respectful of how well they dealt with their complex situations.”

In the lead: That respect and compassion served her in good stead throughout her years as department director. No matter the other challenges, she’s never lost sight of the welfare of the patients and employees in her charge. In fact, mentoring is one of her abiding strengths, and with her enthusiastic “let’s try it” attitude, those around her can’t wait to follow her lead.

“My creativity is such that I can create a mission and have wonderful people around me to get us there—you know who can do it,” she asserts. “I’ve always wanted to let people around me grow. I tell them the ‘why’ and let them go do it, and I’m determined enough to make sure they do it. It’s not just about delegating. I want them to go do it and I make sure they do it, so there’s an accountability piece.”

Over the years, Keysor has managed three multi-million dollar foodservice facility renovations and, several years ago, transitioned her department to a cutting-edge bedside menu entry system utilizing handheld computers to effect a faster and more accurate process. Today, MMC offers a mix of spoken menu, room service and traditional systems in an effort to meet the needs of a diverse population. In Keysor’s opinion, room service is not a perfect fit for all facilities or for all departments. At MMC, four units provide room service: family birthing, oncology and two 23-hour stay units. “I think there are issues out there centering on cost/benefit,” she says. “For surgical patients who are here less than 24 hours, the program didn’t work out since the affects of anesthesia linger and they have little appetite. Also, from the production kitchen aspect, there are issues: if a production kitchen is producing 60% of the meals through tray assembly and 40% of meals through call-in room service, that’s a challenging idea. From the patient point of view, they need very different types of service.”

New partnering: Today at MMC, family members of patients are being approached as partners in keeping with today’s culture of patient and family centered care. They’re making it clear that they want to know what their relatives’ schedules are. “They want to know what time tests are scheduled and that lunch is at a specific time. Well, that’s not room service—and it’s a very big deal,” Keysor points out.

“Also, some members of the nursing staff were not interested in room service because of the physical therapy schedules. They want to know that all patients get trays at 12:15, so that also affects the room service model. But satisfaction scores in oncology went way up with room service, and it works so well in the birthing units.”

Measure to manage: While Keysor has harnessed the power of pairing her “analytical mind” with her “creative mind” to plan and problem solve, she’s led the way in surveying patients and customers to ensure that she and her department are hitting the mark. In fact, her benchmarking acumen has impacted facilities nationwide through her involvement in the National Society for Healthcare Foodservice Management (HFM). As she says: “Financial experts will tell you that you can’t manage what you can’t measure. The culinary is very important but it’s also the business administration. You’re managing multi-millions of dollars of expense and revenue. I often wish I had my MBA. It should be a qualification for this business.”

At MMC, Keysor has been involved in benchmarking since the mid 1980s and, through HFM, she aimed (especially during her year as president in 2000 to 2001) to improve the methodology. “I was involved in negotiating a partnership with Solucient and HFM to get them to use HFM’s benchmark protocols so the industry could have one method of counting,” she explains. “Up to that time, the industry had two different methods of counting that were used for tracking productivity; that was confusing to administration and to the operators. Operator members realize that benchmarking is the ‘road to the gold.’ The [HFM Express] program not only helps healthcare operators make meaningful changes that will improve their programs, but data can be used by administrators to evaluate foodservice programs.”

Keysor has also championed partnerships with manufacturers and encouraged their participation in HFM in advisory positions. “The partnership between the end user and the manufacturer is very important, and you have to make sure both get what they want,” she says. “Together I think we can make some good changes.”

Art as business: Having determined that now is the time to segue into retirement and find more time for her art, Keysor sees whole new vistas of learning opening up ahead. “I’ve moved from painting to folk art to illustration. I want to take illustration methods and apply them to tiles—I’ve been doing tiles for about five months now—and perhaps link up with a decorative tile company. I’d design a tile to use as a trivet or in a kitchen or bathroom wall. I’m working on this business plan now and learning digital photography, Web site design, production and marketing. This is all new and exciting—and sometimes scary—but I’m a risk taker so I’m ready to try this.”

Board business: But Keysor is not stepping away entirely from the healthcare management realm, since the ceo of MMC’s health system is chairman of the board of a community venture—Piper Shores, a continuing care retirement community—and has asked her to be one of the directors. Based upon her track record at MMC, she’ll soon know all the details as reflected in the numbers because, as she has often said, “Managing by numbers can be powerful.”