Saturday, August 22, 2009

"Please read – all the way through"

Some three years ago, Peter McGinn told his colleagues about a Canadian pilot who died from a hospital-acquired infection. He copied the man's obituary in an email sent to the management staff at United Health Services (UHS), where Peter was President and CEO.

“Someday,” Peter wrote, “we may look back at this (obituary) and say it represented a tipping point in public consciousness.” He advised his managers: “Please read this very carefully – all the way through.”

It was typical of Peter to stay in touch with his managers, to bring them relevant information that might help them understand or perform better, to bridge the human and the technical.

Last Monday Peter died at Massachusetts General Hospital from complications of amyloid disease. The disease had damaged his heart, and he was in Boston for a possible heart transplant.

On Saturday he wrote:
I learned yesterday that the amyloid disease has infiltrated my lungs. I cannot safely or successfully have a heart transplant.

In the meanwhile, I have been kept alive with high doses of heart medication and kidney dialysis. We are going to stop the treatment soon. After that, my heart is not likely to continue to work. . . .

My family is here. We’ve had a chance to talk with each other. I am at peace with what comes next. I have been so moved by the expressions of support and the outpouring of prayers that I cannot begin to convey the comfort that brings me as I go to my next step.

While in Boston, Peter kept in touch with family, friends, and colleagues using CaringBridge, a website for communications and support during illness. His first journal entry was February 21. When he died 178 days later, his journal had been visited some 9,000 times. That’s an indication of the people who were touched by his life and his leadership.

Peter was a PhD psychologist, and throughout his career at UHS and at Johns Hopkins University Hospital, he was always a teacher, a colleague, a coach, and a friend. When he retired from UHS two years ago, he formed Leadership Impact, a management consulting firm.

On Sunday his nurses organized a picnic for Peter and his family, a last time together in the sun. After returning to his room, Peter declined his medications and said goodbye to the doctors and nurses who had cared for him.

This is from the last entry in the journal, written by his wife and daughters on Monday:

When we remarked to him that we were touched by his generous spirit even now, he said the important part of being kind is to share specific, meaningful details about what people mean to you. It was one last lesson he was able to teach us.

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