How a Manila heart surgeon helped save Maine Hospital
Portland, Maine — In last month’s column about legendary physicians, I was reminded about the talents of Dr. Jorge Garcia, heart surgeon extraordinaire. This resulted in my remembering his involvement in an unusual set of circumstances, which is the basis for this month's story.
The year was 2002 and I was very comfortable in my job as CEO of the Riverside Medical Center in Franklinton, Louisiana, where I had been since 1999. My employer, East Jefferson General Hospital in Metairie, LA, was a large, very successful acute care hospital in the New Orleans area and had a management contract to provide the Executive Leadership of the small hospital in Franklinton, 65 miles to the north, which was owned by Washington Parish. While responsible to the Board of Riverside, I also reported to the president and CEO of East Jefferson, Peter Betts, who over 20+ years had built East Jefferson into one of the best and most highly regarded hospitals in Louisiana.
While I very much enjoyed my work, living in a small town of about 4,000, 90 minutes north of New Orleans had its challenges to someone who enjoyed buying the New York Times and liked to frequent fine dining establishments.
One of my dreams had always been to work overseas, so it was not hard to accept the invitation in 2002, that came to interview with Dr. Jorge Garcia, at the prompting of our mutual friend, Ron Marx, the longstanding CEO of Washington Adventist Hospital in Maryland. Mr. Marx and Dr. Garcia had built Washington Adventist into one of the premier heart centers of the DC area.
The hospital’s comptroller came to see me: "Ted, I've got some very bad news for you on your first day. Payroll is coming up in a few days and we don't have enough cash to cover it. We're about $500,000 short. Our line of credit is exhausted, our banking partner has put us in their dog pound, and I don't know how we're going to make it."
Dr. Garcia, who had built a successful practice in the Philippines, as well as the U.S., was building a new hospital in Manila where he would base his leading cardiac surgery program. The lure of being associated with this new program was unbearable and so I readily accepted the offer to move to Manila and lead out in finishing the project and then helping to open this brand new facility called Asian Hospital.
Upon returning to Louisiana, I met with my boss and mentor Peter Betts. He knew that there wasn't anything they could offer me to compare with this tremendous opportunity, so we worked together in selecting my replacement at Riverside, Conrad Flowers, our most competent CFO at Riverside.
After preparing Conrad, and wishing him well, I attended my going away party and packed my bags for the 10,000-mile trip to The Philippines.
Except, I didn't get on the plane.
All of a sudden, this very compelling feeling came over me that I shouldn't go to Manila. I loved to travel and had always dreamed of an assignment like this, so it made no sense to me why I had such feelings.
But God moves in mysterious ways, and a still, small voice was telling me to stay put, even though I didn't have a job. So I contacted Ron and Jorge, and said “I'm sorry.”
During the next few weeks I helped fill in for an absence in the East Jefferson Imaging department while I polished my resume.
In the first week of October, I received a call from a Gary Thurber, who I had never heard of. He identified himself as president of the Northern New England Conference of SDA, in Portland, Maine. The Northern New England Conference was the owner of the Adventist Hospital in Brunswick, Maine, called Parkview, and Mr. Thurber was the chairman of the Board of Parkview.
He explained that they had been involved in a search for a CEO and had narrowed their search down to two finalists. The final interviews were scheduled for the week of Oct. 14, and their board was meeting later that week to make a decision. Mr. Thurber said that although we had never met, my name had been given to him and he felt impressed to contact me and ask me to join in the final set of interviews. He also shared with me that Parkview was a special place, with wonderful dedicated staff and a core of physicians who treated patients as if they were family. Most of the community and especially seniors loved the hospital.
After a long pause and a thorough review of my other options (none), I said: "Yes, I'll be happy to fly up and interview.
As I pulled into the driveway of Parkview on Oct. 14, I began to see why this was a special place and why park-view was in the name. There were beautiful wooded areas surrounding the hospital and sunlight highlighted the brilliant fall colors that were reflecting into my eyes on that gorgeous fall day.
After three days of interviews I learned some about the hospital's difficult cash position they were in. Their Days Outstanding in AR had risen in the past year substantially.
After the board meeting, I received a call from Arnie Swanson, the vice chair of the board, asking me if I would join them as CEO. After carefully weighing my options (again - none other), I accepted. He then asked me when I could start, and I replied, "When would you like me?"
"Right away" he replied. So I flew back to New Orleans, hurriedly packed my car and headed out for the long drive from Louisiana to Maine, arriving in Brunswick on Sunday evening, Oct. 20.
The next day, Oct. 21, 2002, I showed up at Parkview and began to get acclimated to my new office and surroundings.
Around 10 a.m. the comptroller of the hospital, Bill Gannon, came to see me (the previous CFO had left a few weeks earlier). "Ted, I've got some very bad news for you on your first day. Payroll is coming up in a few days and we don't have enough cash to cover it. We're about $500,000 short. Our line of credit is exhausted, our banking partner has put us in their dog pound, and I don't know how we're going to make it."
During my interview I had learned some of the long-standing struggle Parkview had experienced with the other hospital in town. It was a very competitive marketplace and if Parkview were to miss a payroll, this would most likely cause a domino effect which could bring an end to the hospital.
After saying a quick prayer, I placed a call to a financial consultant I knew who specialized in Revenue Cycle work with hospitals, to see if he could fly out that evening to help us out. He said yes, and the next day he began making calls to some of the managed care companies that owed money to the hospital. By payroll day, we not only had enough collected to make payroll, but $600,000 extra.
A few weeks later we hired a new CFO, Wing Choi, who proceeded in the next 12 months to lead out in the effort that brought in $3 million more in collections for 2003 than had been collected in the previous year. Over the next few years, Wing helped restore the finances of Parkview into very good health.
It took a few years for me to realize the providential impact of events that had resulted in Parkview being saved that week of October in 2002.
The other two candidates that were interviewing at Parkview may have been better CEO candidates than myself. But had either of them been selected, they would have had to give a 30-day notice to their employer. I was the only candidate that was available and could be there to start work on Oct. 21, 2002. As a result, the potential disaster of a missed payroll was averted and this beautiful faith-based hospital in Brunswick was saved.
How was it that I happened to be available to start on Oct. 21, 2002? Only because Dr. Garcia recruited me to Manila and then I backed out.
I have told the story of God's providence in these events several times.
However, I've never told this story to my good friend Dr. Garcia. So Jorge, a regular reader of this monthly column, will be learning for the first time, how his job offer to me to join Asian Hospital, and my subsequent decline of his offer, resulted in a chain of events that saved a beautiful faith-based hospital in Brunswick, Maine.
Although Jorge had every reason to be upset with me for my reneging on my agreement in 2002, we are good friends to this day. While I was in Guam from 2012 to 2016 (fulfilling my dream of overseas work), we had the opportunity to reconnect on several occasions.
Alas, the forces of market and healthcare competition resulted in Parkview closing as an in- patient facility in 2015. However, the beautiful grounds of Parkview to this day provide a tranquil setting for the outpatient and physician services still offered there.
Now that the hospital has closed, I have the pleasure and distinction for the record books of being the longest tenured CEO in Parkview's 50+ year history, having served from 2002 to 2012.
Every time I recall these miraculous events of 2002 I am reminded of the words: "To God be the glory.”
Theodore Lewis is former CEO of Guam Memorial Hospital and has a healthcare consulting business based out of Portland, Maine. He is collecting stories about lessons learned in life and can be reached at email@example.com.