Surrey executive helps build better B.C. health care

Profile: Rowena Rizzotti, vice-president, health care and innovations, Lark Group

Photo: Chung Chow

Growing up in Castlegar in the West Kootenays, Rowena Rizzotti lived a life steeped in Canadiana.

“We engaged in everything that a small town in B.C. has to offer,” said Rizzotti, who is vice-president of health care and innovations for Surrey-based Lark Group. “It was across all four seasons, and it was a hockey town, and we were very much a hockey family.”

Rizzotti’s brother Steve Junker played for the New York Islanders, who drafted him in 1991. Rizzotti’s own career path was shaped by the many women in her family who had assumed leadership roles in the fields of nursing and teaching. Rizzotti, who was born in 1965, noted she first got the health-care bug during a high school first-aid class, and pretty soon she was teaching it as well.

“I realized right away that was absolutely going to be my path,” she said. “I wanted to care for other people. I was intrigued by how you could intervene and solve a problem during a crisis – how you could quickly come in with a clear view of thought and do the right thing. And I think I liked the pressure and the adrenalin a little bit too.”

After she graduated from high school in 1983, Rizzotti became the first female ambulance attendant in Castlegar and Quesnel, starting in 1986. She said she had to hit the weight room and add some muscle to make sure she could help lift her end of the stretcher.

Rizzotti also enrolled at Selkirk College, taking classes in business administration and nursing while working as an ambulance attendant. While working as a front-line care provider in Castlegar, getting called to incidents such as car accidents offered unique challenges, she said.

“Those situations, when they did present themselves, were tragic in nature, and in a small town it’s even more difficult because often it involves individuals that you know and family members that you know; it could be a neighbour or someone that you were friends with. So that made it very difficult, and you had to become very professional and not allow your emotions to interrupt your ability to be effective at that time, and time was of the essence.”

Rizzotti said the experience left a deep imprint on her, teaching her how to interact with patients and families during a time of extreme crisis, and also how to handle herself during stressful moments when she was being counted on.

“I’ve carried that through my whole career, a sense of compassion and empathy,” she said.

While she was in her early twenties, tragedy struck Rizzotti and her two younger brothers when their mother and father died within a few years of each other. Rizzotti helped look after her two siblings and at one point had five jobs to make ends meet while she was also attending school.

“My brothers and I made a pact that we were going to be survivors from that,” she said. “And that we were going to have a positive outcome and to work together to make sure that happened and that we would see ourselves through that time.”

Rizzotti worked as a nurse in Trail from 1990 to 1995, but she knew she wanted to go back to university and continue her education. Rizzotti headed to the University of British Columbia’s newly opened Okanagan campus, completing a degree in psychology with a minor in biochemistry, graduating in 1999.

Rizzotti said she was looking towards medical school and was shortlisted for the University of Alberta’s program, which also facilitated a move east to Calgary. However, she ended up working in the private health- care sector, working her way up to director of operations for Networc Health Inc., which focused on medical, surgical and rehabilitation services for third-party agencies including various publicly funded health authorities across the country.

By 2004, the West Coast was calling Rizzotti, and she took a job with Northern Health in Prince George.

“After being [in Calgary] I started to yearn to return to B.C.,” she said. “This is a thread throughout my whole life: I love the outdoors. I need to be surrounded by big trees, forests, water, rivers and creeks. And I really love the culture and the sentiment of small-town people, and the warmth and the kindness.”

Rizzotti took on the role of chief operating officer for the northwestern jurisdiction of the health authority, zigzagging all over the area, an experience she calls one of the most “extraordinary” of her career.

“It was planes, trains and automobiles,” she said. “I would literally leave my house on Sunday afternoon, and I would be on a plane, or a float plane, or a ferry or a boat, because I had all the rural communities and it was critically important that I visited those communities on a regular basis.”

After five years working for Northern Health, she was again looking for a change. In September 2008, she joined Fraser Health as its executive director of clinical programs and operations. Rizzotti was responsible for the eastern portion of the Fraser Valley, which included Chilliwack, Hope and Abbotsford.

She said there was one advantage in moving from northern B.C. to the Lower Mainland – better cellphone reception.

“My favourite part was that as I was driving from community to community, I had cell service, so I could be on conference calls.”

Rizzotti quickly made a name for herself as a valuable asset in helping the province’s largest health authority bring its services into the 21st century. This included the eight-storey critical-care tower for Surrey Memorial Hospital, a massive redevelopment that cost $512 million.

“I wasn’t afraid of difficult roles and difficult positions…. I prided myself on being able to tackle tough challenges.”

South Surrey-White Rock MP and former Surrey mayor Dianne Watts said Rizzotti was pivotal in helping Surrey revamp its health-care sector and bring about its Innovation Boulevard and the Lark Group’s Health and Technology District across from the Surrey Memorial Hospital, which is aimed at attracting both talent and technology to the city.

“She was an instrumental driver in the early days of Surrey’s health and innovation strategy,” Watts said, “and her high-level expertise and understanding of the health and innovations sector are unparalleled.”

Rizzotti spent 2013 to 2015 working as vice-president of operations and president for Retirement Concepts before landing in her current role with the Lark Group. Looking back on her career, Rizzotti said her upbringing in Castlegar has helped at every step.

“Being a small-town person, I really think that drove my leadership style and how I approached my teams. It was always really important for me to understand what was going on in the community and what was important to the community.”