TIRR Memorial Hermann has long been recognized internationally for its leadership in rehabilitation and research. Today, the hospital and its comprehensive network of inpatient and outpatient rehabilitation care is led by Rhonda Abbott, PT, FTPTA, MBA, who started her career 20 years ago as an intern in the hospital’s former Inpatient Pediatric Program.
“As with most of us who choose clinical roles in healthcare, I was drawn to help people, to provide meaningful patient care and make a difference in people’s lives,” says Abbott, who was promoted to senior vice president and CEO in December 2020. “Storybook romances are about love at first sight, and that is what I felt for TIRR during my clinical physical therapy internship. Working with these kiddos changed me as a person and made me realize that TIRR is where I need to be. The experience opened my eyes to the incredible wealth of skill and knowledge, clinical expertise and compassion we have here. My career journey after that was a wonderful series of fortunate events.”
Since 2001, Abbott has held integral roles at TIRR Memorial Hermann. After completing her internship, she joined the Spinal Cord Injury and Specialty Rehabilitation Program as a staff therapist, where she taught and mentored in addition to providing direct patient care. She earned successive promotions to director of therapy services and director of clinical programs, vice president of operations and chief operating officer. During healthcare’s frontline response to the COVID-19 pandemic, she moved into the interim CEO role and 3 months later was promoted to senior vice president and chief executive officer.
Abbott received her bachelor’s degree in biomedical science from Texas A&M University, a master’s degree in physical therapy from Texas Woman’s University and her MBA from West Texas A&M University. “I chose Texas Woman’s because I wanted a fantastic academic experience on a timeline that met my aggressive desire to start working sooner rather than later. My soon-to-be husband was from the Houston area, and with TWU’s physical therapy school rankings and location in the world’s largest medical center, it was the logical choice. That early exposure to Texas Medical Center institutions is a significant reason I’m able to do what I do today.”
Currently, Abbott oversees TIRR Memorial Hermann’s continued excellence in rehabilitative care, research, advocacy and education across the Memorial Hermann Health System. She has led clinical care redesign initiatives, translational research efforts, quality and efficiency improvement projects, and the expansion of therapy education programs. In the strategic planning arena, she led TIRR’s expansion and clinical practice leveling across the System, helping to secure CARF accreditation at three Memorial Hermann Rehabilitation Network locations and providing therapy direction both at TIRR Memorial Hermann and the Memorial Hermann Rehabilitation Network, as well as expansion of the rehabilitation education program. As a long-time provider of exceptional patient care experiences, she helps ground the system as a leader in medical rehabilitation and research.
“I’ve always believed people can lead from anywhere, regardless of the position they hold,” she says. “When you’re responsible for a caseload of patients, you can make a difference in the lives of those patients. In my new role, I apply that same idea to make a meaningful impact on a much larger scale, bringing hope for a brighter future to even more patients.”
As CEO, Abbott is responsible for the hospital’s vision and strategy. “The vision is the most exciting part,” she says. “We are the flagship hospital for seven inpatient rehabilitation facilities, seven outpatient locations, a community wellness program, an education academy and a research arm, which gives us the capability to positively influence the long-term recovery of even more people and play a greater role in advocacy for people with disabilities.”
She considers herself fortunate to lead a teaching hospital that provides experiences ranging from student laboratory learning to clinical internships for university students, to residency and fellowship programs, to supporting academic physicians from McGovern Medical School at UTHealth Houston and Baylor College of Medicine. “We expect our clinical teams to be open to learning and thirsty to soak up new knowledge,” she says. “We don’t expect them to know everything, but we do expect them to hold a commitment to lifelong learning. When we hire, we look for curiosity and an attitude of questioning about how we can be better tomorrow than we were today. It’s not just about patient care; it’s a much broader picture. We’re looking for people who are empowered to define solutions and flexible enough to respond positively to the changing rules and demands of a fast-paced healthcare environment while advocating for inclusion of people with disabilities in every aspect of society.”
Abbott and her husband, Blake, met as undergraduates at Texas A&M University and have been married for 22 years. She grew up in a family that loved the water and loved to travel, so she lists these among her favorite things. “I enjoy listening to the ocean waves, sitting on a swing and reading a good book. Or laying in a hammock by the lake, next to a campfire and still reading that good book! I especially enjoy international travel and experiencing new cultures, new food and new people,” she says. “I like to celebrate my family and our memories and adventures in photo books and video compilations. Seeing us together enjoying life makes me smile. Our two teenage sons, Jarob and Leithan, are a significant source of joy and laughter, so heading to the movies with them is always a pleasure.”
She counts her clinical internship at TIRR Memorial Hermann as the first highlight of her career. “The second highlight is, undeniably, now. I never dreamed about being where I am today, with a fantastic and amazing work family, with the opportunity of a lifetime to support this incredible organization as CEO. I am grateful, honored and humbled to do the work I do and for the support I’ve received and continue to receive from others who made this possible, including TIRR’s founders and transformational leaders. We’ve raised the bar for rehabilitation and are continuing to build on their legacy.”
Asked what advice she has for young people embarking on a career, Abbott says, “Be open and be a giver. Being open applies to new experiences, new knowledge and new people. Be open to what you might learn or what you might gain. When we turn away from something, we’ve lost an opportunity that may never present itself again, whether it’s to meet someone or help someone or be helped yourself. Staying open and giving of yourself to others is the secret to success.”