A few days before Christmas in 1991, Chris Perna passed out in a work cafeteria and woke up in an emergency room.
He had experienced a seizure and tests revealed a small, inoperable brain tumor. His wife was expecting their first child. Then 30, Perna opted to be involved in an experimental protocol called stereotactic radiation therapy.
“The tumor was a size of a quarter, and it was going to keep growing,” he remembers. Through the new procedure, the tumor was destroyed, and Perna has been in remission since.
“My son got to grow up with Dad,” he says, choking up. That was especially meaningful given that Perna’s own father, a cement mason, died when Chris was 17. His mother died seven years ago from Alzheimer’s disease.
His parents had pushed him academically, and Perna, the second to last of eight children born over 21 years, was the first person in his family to attend college. A native of Malden, MA, during his freshman year at a private Catholic high school, he met his future wife, Mary, through her brother, who was Perna’s baseball coach. They both attended Brown University and have been married 32 years.
Perna spent 25 years in a successful career in the insurance industry in executive roles, including moving to Rochester, NY, in 1999 to head MedAmerica.
His career in insurance reflected his strong sense of right and wrong, says Peter Costello, chief marketing officer at BCS Insurance.
“He always had a solid moral compass and he followed the rules,” Costello, who has known Perna for 25 years, says. When Perna moved into long-term care, “What really struck me is that he had come full circle in making a difference in the lives of older folks.”
For her part, Ann Marie Cook, the president and CEO of Lifespan of Greater Rochester, says Perna has “a unique combination of business and understanding the innovative side of long-term care.”
Moving to Eden came after a hiatus from the insurance industry, Perna says, when he wasn’t sure what he wanted to do next. After having a conversation with Eden Alternative founder Bill Thomas, M.D., Perna accepted the group’s role of president and CEO in 2010.
Thomas says he knew Perna was right because “he was able to reconcile the competing demands of the head and the heart.”
For Perna, he says, “I was turning 50 and looking for a way to have more of an impact.”
Perna enjoys skiing and golf. But much of his spare time has been spent with his children, who “have all done really well.” His son Jonathon, 25, a chemical engineer in Louisiana, is to be married in May, while son Cameron, 22, is graduating soon from the University of Notre Dame and moving to San Francisco to work for an investment bank. The third son, Christopher, 19, has spent the past year playing hockey in Canada in preparation for playing at the college level, while daughter Madeleine, 18, is headed to college this fall.
“My wife is my partner,” Perna says. “We like to go on hikes, and anything around the house is a team effort.”
As he reflects on his career and life, he comes back to the concept of resilience.
“I leveraged the gifts I had been given,” he says. “People who are resilient tend to be successful. Losing my father was really hard, and that taught me some life lessons that have benefited me over the past 40 years. I have just taken every opportunity, and hopefully have benefited other people in the process.”
Graduates from Brown University with a bachelor’s degree in applied math and economics
Begins as a vice president at Blue Cross Blue Shield, Small Business and Select Markets Division
Becomes president of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Utica-Watertown, Utica, NY
Starts as president and CEO of
of Excellus Health Plan, Inc.
Joins board of Lifespan of Greater Rochester
Becomes president and CEO of the Eden Alternative
Named board member at Pioneer Network and the Dementia Action Alliance