The Best Medicine

Thirty-seven years after getting my master’s degree in hospital administration and entering the wild and woolly world of health care, I’m retiring. That word still catches me off guard—retirement is something a grandparent does, not me. I’m still a kid. Or at least a kid at heart. Well, OK, it’s a pretty old heart, but still …

It’s a fluke I even went into healthcare administration. I was studying journalism at the University of Nebraska and was considering getting a master’s degree in playwriting, so I could make big bucks writing plays for local theater groups. That seemed like a solid plan.

To put myself through school, I got a part-time job at my university’s student health center, and I absolutely loved it. To this day I can’t explain what it was about that job, but being in a setting filled with truly caring professionals helping others immediately resonated with me. After working there for a couple of years, I changed career paths: I wanted to work in health care. I knew I wasn’t bright enough to be a nurse or a doctor or a lab tech, so I decided to go into management. 

I attended the University of Missouri’s health administration program. It was a challenging adjustment, both for me and the school. My brain was wired differently from many of my classmates, most of whom had undergraduate degrees in business. One time we had to draw a decision tree in a planning class. My decision tree had branches and squirrels and leaves and nuts. My professor was quite angry; he wasn’t sure if I was being insolent or an idiot (apparently he thought it was an either/or situation).

Somehow I graduated and ended up in Virginia. Since my undergraduate start at a student health center, I’ve worked at two academic medical centers and three community hospitals, including Sentara Martha Jefferson Hospital and Sentara RMH Medical Center, as well as a local hospice organization. There are too many experiences to sum up in a letter like this, but some of my key career observations include the following:

  • Most everyone in health care cares. There is definitely a wide range of personalities in a hospital, which can make for interesting work dynamics, but people are there for the right reason: to serve those in need. When everyone in health care remembers that, we can do amazing things.
  • The challenge of running a place that absolutely never closes is striking. When Martha Jefferson and RMH opened their new hospitals a few years ago, I was struck by the fact that once their front doors were unlocked, they would always be open. Not just 24/7/365, but quite possibly for the next 50 or 60 years. Always. Open. It’s a marvel.
  • The range of care and the magnitude of activities that take place in a hospital every single day are also stunning. Every day, under one roof, babies are born, surgeries are performed, emergency care is delivered, cancer treatments are conducted, diseases are diagnosed, lives are saved, lives are lost, families are consoled, and people are fed, cleaned and cared for—and that only represents probably 15% of what takes place in a hospital. Every day.
  • Decision trees don’t have squirrels in them.

Sometimes I think about how different my life would be if I hadn’t taken that job at the student health center. I’d be living in some other part of the country, with different friends, a different wife and a different career to look back on. 

I’m glad I took that job. It’s been a good run.

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