Profile: She's in it for the long run

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Cheryl Phillips, SVP of advocacy, LeadingAge
Cheryl Phillips, SVP of advocacy, LeadingAge
As a 10-time marathon runner, Cheryl Phillips, M.D., knows how to push forward. In her new role as LeadingAge's senior vice president for advocacy, she'll be working to keep recent progress — like the CLASS Act — on track through rocky political terrain.

For Phillips, this role is the next step in a life-long journey. She was introduced to long-term care as a child after her family moved from Canada to Stockton, CA. Her father ran a hardware store and her mother was an administrative assistant at a nursing home. “I spent my elementary school years doing homework at the nursing home and having dinner with residents,” Phillips said.

During high school and college, she became interested in science and research. She entered medical school, intending to become a clinical pathologist but had a change of heart during her fourth year.

“I was doing three months of pathology and realized that I didn't have anybody alive to talk to,” she said.
After graduating from Loma Linda School of Medicine and completing a residency and geriatric fellowship at the University of California, Davis Medical Center, Phillips began an 18-year career with Sutter Health System. She started in general family practice and then gained experience in home health, hospice, nursing homes and administration.

Phillips' views have been shaped by residents and colleagues alike. Her first mentor was David Daehler, M.D., one of the early medical directors in Sacramento.

Throughout her career, Phillips has held many leadership roles, including president of the American Geriatrics Society and the American Medical Directors Association. She most recently served as chief medical officer for On Lok, the country's first PACE program.

Along the way, she earned the respect of colleagues — including her husband, James Lett, M.D., whom she met through AMDA. Friends jokingly call them the “first couple” of long-term care.

Colleagues routinely describe Phillips as intelligent, warm and funny — someone who is as at home chatting with patients as she is talking with physicians and policymakers. “Cheryl makes people feel comfortable, which allows her to exert leadership and build consensus around difficult issues,” says AMDA Executive Director Lorraine Tarnove.

AGS President Jennie Chin Hansen praises Phillips' ability to hear someone out while keeping focus on a mission. She also marvels at her energy: “Cheryl is the kind of person who can jump off a red-eye (flight) and be ready to testify before Congress fifteen minutes later.”

Phillips' vitality is hardly surprising, considering her hobbies. When not running marathons, she has been known to pile the family in the car for spontaneous ski trips.

It is clear she takes a lot of joy in family. She speaks proudly of her son Aaron, an Army officer and Iraqi war veteran, and lights up describing her stepdaughters,  Rebecca and Jennie, and grandchildren, Livi and Grady.
Phillips' new role will take her  from coast to coast, a long route to be sure, but one she seems ready to take like everything else — in stride.

Resume

1985
Earns doctorate of medicine from Loma Linda School of Medicine in California

1987
Becomes chief resident at University of California Davis Medical Center

1994
Begins as Sutter Health's medical director for skilled nursing and chronic care

1999
Becomes president of the American Medical Directors Association

2007
Accepts position as chief medical officer of On Lok

2009
Becomes president of the American Geriatrics Society

2011
Named senior vice president for advocacy of LeadingAge