Former South Peninsula Hospital CEO dies of COVID-19

Bob Letson led several expansions, improvements in nearly 10 years in Homer

A former chief administrator of South Peninsula Hospital, Bob Letson, has died at the age of 72.

His family has released, through his obituary and in interviews with the Homer News, that he died of COVID-19. His widow, Cristal Letson, said she didn’t want to hide that fact.

Letson died on Nov. 8 in Columbia, South Carolina.

Born in Camden, South Carolina, Letson grew up in the South and was a hospital administrator in several places around the country besides Homer, including Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina, Mississippi and, most recently before his death, North Dakota. He was awarded the American Hospital Association’s Grassroots Champion Award in 2013.

Letson became South Peninsula Hospital’s Chief Executive Officer in March 2008 and served in that position for nearly a decade. He led a number of expansions to services and infrastructure at the hospital during that time, including the expansion and renovation of the Homer Medical Clinic. He worked to expand orthopedic services for residents, to get an oncology clinic, and to recruit specialists to the area.

South Peninsula Hospital gained its designation as a Critical Access Hospital while Letson was at the helm, as well as its Emergency Level Trauma IV and Patient Centered Medical Home II designations. An acute care wing and a new emergency room, imaging department and MRI scanner were all added during his tenure as well.

Letson retired from South Peninsula Hospital in June 2018. He and his wife Cristal moved back to the Lower 48 to be closer to members of their family.

“I started thinking about being able to visit my children and grandchildren more often because, you know, life can be short,” he told the Homer News in a 2017 interview.

Before his death, Letson came out of retirement to take an interim hospital administration job at Southwest Healthcare Services in North Dakota, his family said. Upon returning to Columbia for a visit, Letson developed symptoms and tested positive for COVID-19. It is not known exactly where he might have contracted the virus, his children Paul Letson and Sarah Luell said.

Luell and Paul Letson described a man who came out of retirement to help a community that needed leadership when the pandemic hit. He didn’t shy away, they said. Luell said he bonded with the hospital team and community in North Dakota, even during the short time he was there.

Once positive for the virus, Letson’s health declined and he was admitted for treatment. Eventually he was intubated. Luell, Paul Letson and Cristal Letson all said Letson had been in good health for his age, even better health than when he had been in his 50s. In recent years he had started going to the gym multiple times a week and had lost weight.

Letson had diabetes, Cristal Letson said, but no other underlying conditions. He had never smoked and rarely drank anymore, she said.

“It took our strong, charismatic, loving father,” Luell said. “… He got all of the right care; the hospital did all that they could, but COVID took him.”

His death was not attributed to any reason other than COVID-19, and he would still be here if he had not contacted it, Luell said.

Paul Letson said the team at the hospital in North Dakota was following pandemic protocols and guidelines. He said his father was spending his time helping the hospital prepare itself, and that he was really trying to help protect that community.

“Someone that didn’t really have other health complications at the time that would have caused any near passing, was robbed of years,” he said.

According to Cristal Letson, those years were to be filled with travel in their motorhome, time spent at the beach, and fishing in the pond near the house they had just bought. Letson was set to retire from the interim position in North Dakota around Christmas.

“We just had all these plans of things to do,” she said.

Plans like taking their kayaks out on the water, much like they did in Kachemak Bay when they lived in Homer.

“You know, you would never imagine that he was as old as he was,” Cristal Letson said of how active Letson was.

That proclivity for outdoor activities was something new his son saw Homer bring out in him. Paul Letson said the family would go on outdoor adventures together when he was younger, but not often. Learning that his dad liked to fish and kayak on Kachemak Bay and go hiking revealed a slightly new side of him.

“I think Homer gave him a greater appreciation for the outdoors than he had ever had,” Paul Letson said.

During his time in Homer, Letson was also active in the community outside the hospital. He served on the board of directors for the Homer Chamber of Commerce, and took opportunities to see local plays, Cristal Letson said.

“He really, I think, felt like he connected with the community there and … he was very invested in it,” Luell said.

In Homer, Letson could see the direct impact of his work around him, she said.

Cristal Letson recalls a favorite activity of hers and Letson’s was going out to eat at their favorite Homer restaurants. Back then, you could find them at Wasabi’s Bistro, getting a burger at the Glacier D on the Homer Spit, or at Don Jose’s and the former Cafe Cups. Another of Letson’s favorite activities was going to the local movie theater, Cristal Letson said.

She and Letson met at the hospital, where she worked as a CNA at the time, and later as a pharmacy technician and a unit clerk in Long Term Care. She described them discovering their shared experiences and similarities, and eventually falling in love.

“Our whole thing was like a love story and everybody was participating in it,” she said. “And it was cut short way too soon.”

Cristal Letson described being hesitant when Letson asked her to have dinner with him, but she agreed.

“We had the same quirky sense of humor, both of us did,” she said. “I mean, we got each other. We would end each other’s sentences and think the same weird things at the same time.”

“We were just best friends,” she said.

Cristal Letson said she wants people to understand how serious the virus is and to take take it seriously. She and Letson’s children described the illness brought on by COVID-19 as very difficult and painful for Letson. It ravaged him, Luell said.

“He said it was the most painful thing he had ever felt, and he couldn’t describe to me how much pain he was in,” Cristal Letson said.

Luell and Paul Letson described it as taking a sharp turn for the worse. There are people who have milder cases, Luell said, and her father had expected to make it through. In the end, she and her brother said goodbye to Letson through a glass window and a monitor.

“The (virus) and its (contagious) nature robbed us of our ability to say goodbye to him,” Luell said.

Cristal Letson said she’s aware that Homer, as a community, has not been hit very hard by COVID-19 relative to other places around the country. Still, she urged caution.

“I want to say that, please take it serious,” she said. “Because a lot of people don’t. A lot of people think its’a joke, and it’s not a joke.”

Cristal Letson also thanked the members of the community who have reached out to her and her family since his death.

“I just want them to know that I know it would have meant a lot to Bob to know that those people cared,” she said.

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