CARMEL VALLEY — Chris Van Gorder is perhaps best known as the president and chief executive officer of Scripps Health.Taking over more than a decade ago, he was instrumental in turning around the once-flailing medical organization. Van Gorder is also well-regarded for another reason: his volunteer work.
Van Gorder, a Carmel Valley resident, was recently named the San Diego County Sheriff Department’s Volunteer of the Year for serving as the reserve commander for the Search and Rescue Unit.
“I was very surprised to get the award,” he said. “There are so many dedicated volunteers with the Sheriff’s Department, and not just in search and rescue, who put in their time and energy for no pay at all.”
Van Gorder’s passion for law enforcement goes back well before his volunteer experience for the Sheriff’s Department. About 35 years ago, Van Gorder was a police officer in Los Angeles when misfortune came knocking.
In 1978, he was struck by a car in the line of duty, which caused severe musculoskeletal injuries and forced him to retire. It just so happened that the hospital that took care of Van Gorder for about a year hired him as director of security once he healed. Working in hospital operations inspired him, so he enrolled at the University of Southern California and earned a master’s in hospital services administration. From there, he was happily employed by several hospitals. But his experience as a police officer was never far from his mind.
“I never lost my love and interest in law enforcement,” Van Gorder said.
A Scripps physician introduced him to the Search and Rescue Unit in 2003. He joined as a civilian volunteer soon after. Van Gorder later completed 240 hours of training at the San Diego County Sheriff’s Search and Rescue Academy, gained certifications and climbed the ranks over the years. As part of his duties as reserve commander, Van Gorder oversees about 150 volunteers, who on top of graduating from the Search and Rescue Academy (if they don’t already have equivalent experience), are trained in specialized units like tactical, K-9 and medical.
“Even though we’re volunteers, we have extensive training,” Van Gorder said.
Van Gorder said it’s often an emotionally taxing job, particularly for missions like the searches for Chelsea King and Amber Dubois.
“We obviously always respond hoping the person will be alive,” Van Gorder said. “But it doesn’t always work out that way. I’ve never forgotten any of those searches and I never will.”
San Diego Sheriff Sgt. Don Parker, coordinator for the Sheriff’s Search and Rescue Unit, recommended Van Gorder for the award.
“Some people get the big picture and others are good at smaller, individual tasks,” Parker said. “He’s one of those rare people that can do both well. And on top of it, he’s very good with all kinds of people in all kinds of situations.”
Van Gorder participates in missions that range from longer searches across several counties to shorter rescues, one of which Van Gorder said involved a helicopter swooping in and picking up a woman who was injured at the base of a waterfall. The missions vary greatly, but he said timing is always of the essence.
“We start our training with one fundamental principle — that is searches are an emergency,” Van Gorder said. “We react as quickly as possible in environments that require quick decision making.”
Van Gorder has certainly demonstrated grace under pressure — and not just as reserve commander. He’s also won the Maltese Cross Award from the San Diego County Fire Chiefs Association. And as reserve commander, Van Gorder is a licensed emergency medical technician and instructor for the American Red Cross.
In addition, he’s racked up various healthcare awards for his role at Scripps.
Van Gorder has put in as many as 1,000 hours for the Search and Rescue Unit in a year, but typically averages around 700. He said his commitment can be traced to a lesson he learned from his dad.
“My dad taught us it was our obligation to give back to a country that’s been good to us,” Van Gorder said.