Saturday, November 16, 2002

Where we came from

In the early morning hours of January 1, 1963, a baby girl was born at Community Hospital, its first patient. Her birth in the brand new hospital was the result of more than ten years of community planning, including two false-starts.

I know something of this history because in 1985 Morris “Morey” Berman, an attorney and one of the founding board members asked me to lunch. I was one of the “next generation” he wanted to know about the “true story” of Community General Hospital. I was fascinated to hear his story then, and as CGH nears near its 40th anniversary, I found myself telling this story last week to doctors and to business leaders. It is a good time to remind ourselves where we come from.

In the 1950’s there were many aged hospitals in Syracuse, NY. Some of them dated from the Victorian era. The names of some hospitals are not heard anymore, so let me recall that Syracuse was home to A.E. Silverman Hospital, General Hospital of Syracuse, Midtown Hospital, Crouse Irving Hospital, Syracuse Memorial Hospital, Peoples Hospital, St. Joseph’s Hospital, St. Mary’s Hospital, and Good Shepherd Hospital.

There were two false-starts before CGH got underway. The first was a community planning report by a committee chaired by attorney Benjamin Shove (1952), the second by Carrier Corporation’s executive Cloud Wampler (1954). Both community leaders chaired studies that made recommendations. Each suggested improvements and consolidations in the city’s hospitals. Each came to nothing.

Then about 1956, Syracuse newspaper editor Alexander “Casey” Jones checked into a hospital on Irving Avenue for abdominal surgery. He found a roof leaking and one or more buckets to collect the water dripping in his room. He was happy and asked for a room change, but there were no other rooms available. So Casey Jones checked out of the hospital, took a train to Washington DC (his home town) and had surgery there. He returned to Syracuse a number of weeks later and sought out Syracuse Mayor Donald Mead. He asked the mayor for help in developing public consensus to replace antiquated hospital facilities.

Mayor Mead called for an investigation by the City Planning Commission, chaired by Morey Berman, my informant. The result was three days of public hearings at which more than 70 physicians, patients, and business people testified about the urgent need for improved hospital facilities. This generated the third community report that called for an entirely new 300-bed hospital to be constructed away from downtown in an area of “therapeutic green.” Several locations were suggested, and among them the 42 acres of reforested land owned by the County on Onondaga Hill. State Senator John Hughes authored special legislation in Albany which allowed County Executive John Mulroy to deed the land for $1.00 to a new Community Hospital.
How to build the new hospital? The Community Fund was created (now, the Community General Foundation). It was chaired by Leonard Markert Sr. who rented space downtown for the meetings and volunteers who traveled throughout the area seeking donations. Within a matter of months the Fund had pledges totaling more than $7 million, the largest fund raising campaign in Syracuse to that time (and for many years after).

Thousands of people participated in the campaign, many of them pledging small amounts to be deducted from their paychecks every week. The payments were received over several years from employees of General Electric, Carrier Corporation, Crouse Hinds Corporation, New Process Gear, and many from other companies. A US government grant of some $2 million was also obtained under the Hill-Burton Act.

The Community Fund looked for an administrator for its new hospital and hired John L. Brown, a New York native who had recently built a new hospital in Rockford, IL. Mr. Brown became CGH’s the first employee and first president. He relocated to Syracuse in 1958 and started the meetings, designs, contracts, and medical staff recruitment that resulted in the opening of a brand-new Community Hospital of Greater Syracuse in 1963. The first Medical Staff President was Irving Erschler, MD. In November 1964, the new Community Hospital merged with the 79-year old Syracuse General Hospital to form Community General Hospital.

As were the 1950’s, ours is certainly a dynamic time for Syracuse health care. The break-up of the Health Alliance in 2002 and Crouse Hospital’s affiliation talks with University Hospital show a health care environment that continues to change.

What would they say to us today, the people who worked so hard to create CGH during the 1950's?

They would tell us that CGH came about as the result of community planning, individual contributions, and hard work – and they would ask us to hold dear to our values, respecting patients, working closely with doctors, and continuing cooperative planning.

They would say, “Never stop trying” and “Keep getting better.”

They would say, “Take good care of the asset we worked hard to bring to this community.”

They would remind us that our place of “therapeutic green" continues as a vital part of the community’s heath care infrastructure.

We hear them.

This text was originally sent to the employees of Community General Hospital, Syracuse, NY, as one of a series of letters from the CEO. The text was subsequently posted on the CEO's blog, More than Medicine, started in June 2007.

Saturday, October 19, 2002

My first "family letter"

It was three weeks yesterday, October 18, that the Board of Directors asked me to serve as CGH’s President & CEO. It is a privilege to have been asked and an honor to serve in this role.

In those three weeks I have had a number of meetings, often more than one, with our Medical Staff leaders, with our Board of Directors, with employees, and with Syracuse area business and community leaders. In these meetings I am asked similar questions:
- “With all the changes in the health care field, what is the best role for CGH in our community?”
- “What is CGH working on?”
- “Will an emphasis on financial performance hurt quality?”
These are important questions, and I want to be available to you for meaningful discussions about these and other notable issues. Obviously there are many who need to hear from me about such topics, just as I need to hear from you and from those outside our hospital.

One timely way to communicate is through the CGH web site: I plan to use our web site to post a weekly letter to members of the CGH Family. This will also allow me to respond to questions asked of me or of others in senior management. I hope this web-posted letter will allow me to say directly what is on my mind and to hear directly what is on yours.

This is my first letter. Over the coming weeks, we will experiment with this format…so please give me your feedback. Send a response directly to

As I return to Community General Hospital after several years away, I am comforted by the traditional strengths of our hospital. Over the years we have demonstrated a solid and unwavering commitment to the patients we serve, and we have paid attention to maintaining the technical skills that make us so good at care and caring.

My new role as CEO helps me see the CGH landscape in a new way. As important as they are, our traditional strengths don’t always help us when the world around us demands new ways of working efficiently or preparing for changes. So in the coming months I will be looking for ways that all of us at CGH can build on our traditional strengths to be sure, but also ways we can develop new knowledge, get exposure to new ideas, and work together in new ways.

A question I have heard more than once deals with the supposed trade-off between financial management and quality care. I was asked this question in employee meetings. Quality care can be achieved within a sound financial operation. Our Board of Directors is very interested in careful financial management and strong patient and physician satisfaction. It We have to do both things well: operate in a financially responsible way and improve patient care and service as an ongoing process. We do not honor one at the expense of the other. Both are essential.

It is in this spirit that I begin this new stage of my service to patients at Community. I look forward to hearing from you.

This text was originally sent to the employees of Community General Hospital, Syracuse, NY, as one of a series of letters from the CEO. The text was subsequently posted on the CEO's blog, More than Medicine, started in June 2007.