Meera Riner’s first job after college was as an occupational therapist working in the slums of Mumbai with children who suffered from cerebral palsy and polio. Parents might carry children across the city on their backs to get care.
Back then, Riner imagined she would always work with children, though maybe in Australia or in remote African villages.
But an unexpected phone call from a Florida hospital recruiter changed her career trajectory. It led her on a journey to become chief operating officer at Nexion, a long-term care provider with 50 facilities across the US.
Like any momentous decision in life, moving to the US in 1991 required pause. Riner called her dad. He said, “Why not? America has a culture of innovation and technology. Why not improve your toolkit and come back to make more of a difference here?”
On Thanksgiving Day, Riner boarded a plane for the first time to start life as an OT at Winter Haven Hospital. After two years, she joined a rehab company serving a nursing home. It was here that she experienced another life-changing moment.
“I had never even seen a nursing home before,” she recalls. “I walked in and met with my patient, an army vet who was recovering from a cardiac event, and I never looked back. I fell in love with the elderly.” Soon, she settled into a professional calling working with the elderly, meeting colleagues who would shore her up and become lifelong mentors and collaborators.
When a colleague, Fran Kirley, left to start Nexion, Riner joined him at the start-up organization. Riner developed a reputation as an expert in emergency preparedness, having safely evacuated and returned more than 900 residents during hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
She also implemented innovative quality and worker satisfaction programs that have earned respect and accolades. All the while, Riner’s home life was a struggle. Trapped in an abusive marriage with two young daughters, one of whom was in and out of hospitals with asthma, and more than 8,000 miles across the globe from her family, Riner often felt alone.
“When I sit back and remember that time, it feels like I’m watching someone else’s story,” she reflects. “Being from India and being a woman in a leadership position, there was an element of thinking I needed to work and fight through this by myself.”
After 18 years, she stepped away from her marriage and discovered marathons. So what if she’d only ever run to the mailbox? She found a local runner’s group and started training. Within six months, she ran her first marathon. She’s been running them ever since.
Riner says her story is about thriving after domestic violence, rather than surviving it. Her daughters, a musician and a veterinarian, are a huge source of pride and joy.
Thinking back on her father’s long-ago advice, Riner remains open to returning to India. But she is relived to know he supported her career in elder care. Riner remembers him reading a magazine article about her work at the end of his life.
“He was saying, ‘It’s amazing what you’ve done there. I hope one day you can come back home to India to do more to advance senior care.’”
1991 Earns occupational therapy degree from G.S Medical College in India
1991 Works as an OT with the Spastics Society of India in Mumbai
1991 Becomes OT at Florida’s Winter Haven Hospital
1993 Joins Symphony Rehab as an OT
1996 Joins Integrated Health Services
2000 Co-founds Nexion, serves as COO
2019 Earns master’s degree in health leadership from Western Governors University
2021 Named to McKnight’s Women of Distinction Hall of Honor
2022 Receives Mary K. Ousley Champion of Quality Award from AHCA/NCAL
From the January/February 2023 Issue of McKnight's Long-Term Care News