The Man Who Rebuilt Martha’s Vineyard Hospital

When the new hospital opens its doors early next year, there will be countless people to thank. Among those at the top of the list will be John P. Ferguson, chairman of the board.

A seasonal resident of Martha’s Vineyard since 1981, John Ferguson retired July 1 as CEO of Hackensack University Medical Center in Bergen County, New Jersey, a position he had held since 1986. He has been selected by Modern Healthcare magazine as one of the most powerful people in the industry each year since 2004. In December of last year, he received New England Healthcare Assembly’s prestigious 2008 Trustee Leadership Award, which recognizes the “significant contributions of a hospital trustee whose personal courage and achievements have been of exceptional value to healthcare,” for the work he has done as board chairman at Martha’s Vineyard Hospital, a position he has held since 2002. Recently John announced that he will step down from chairing the board in March of next year after the new hospital has opened, but will continue to be a member of the board. John spoke with freelance writer Anne McCarthy Strauss at his home in West Tisbury.

What will happen to the old hospital when the new building opens?

One wing of the original 1929 hospital was torn down to make room for the new building. But much of the 1929 structure and the entire 1974 hospital wing will be kept as part of the new hospital campus. Their clinical spaces will be refitted and renovated for other uses.

The existing nineteen-bed hospital will be replaced by a twenty-five-bed facility. Because of the low population on the Island and because many procedures are done on an out-patient basis, we don’t need more than twenty-five beds here on the Island.

Will the new hospital be much different from the old one?

The new hospital will reflect our community’s commitment to quality healthcare at home. The 90,000-square-foot facility will house two floors of efficient, centralized, state-of-the-art services and technology. But it’s not just about the building. There will be a new focus on patient-centered care in a healing environment that will include expanded services and increased capabilities. The focus will remain our traditional commitment to compassionate and personalized care for all who live and visit here.

The new emergency department will have sixteen rooms, twice the current number. The surgical services department will have three operating rooms, a state-of-the-art diagnostic-imaging department, and a new laboratory department. There will be an intensive care center, equipped with the best in modern technology, and an entirely new and advanced maternity suite.

The standards of construction – that are unseen – will also be cutting edge. Behind the walls and ceilings will be everything from high-speed communication wiring to oxygen lines.

How does the affiliation with Boston’s Massachusetts General Hospital work?

The affiliations among Martha’s Vineyard Hospital, Massachusetts General Hospital, and Brigham and Women’s Hospital [in Boston] are already underway. It became official in March 2008, when Martha’s Vineyard Hospital became a member of Partners HealthCare, a network which includes Mass General and a number of smaller hospitals. The affiliation gives Vineyarders a seamless connection to those services that we can’t offer here. All medical information is shared electronically with the partners – meaning that doctors on the Vineyard can have immediate electronic access to doctors and specialists in Boston. We’re also looking into the possibility of bringing specialists from Mass General to the Island on a scheduled basis, allowing Vineyarders needing specialized care to avoid a trip to Boston.

You had a goal of raising $42 million to build the new hospital, but you exceeded it. How?

Surrounding myself with the right people. The key was getting the right leadership for the capital campaign. We were lucky to get the commitment of Frank Biondi [former CEO of Viacom and Universal Studios] and Warren Spector [former co-president at Bear Stearns] to co-chair the campaign and to make their own extremely generous contributions.

Edward Miller [former co-CEO of Schroder Salomon Smith Barney and vice chairman of the Global Corporate and Investment Bank of Citigroup], also a board member, chaired the community campaign, raising close to $9 million. To accomplish that, we went to close to two hundred meetings among the residents in their homes to convey our mission. Attendance at those meetings ranged between twenty and seventy people at each. It was important to the seasonal people to see buy-in from the local residents. It encouraged their decisions to offer financial support.

We also brought in a lot of new physicians. We put Tim Walsh in place as president and CEO with an objective to run the hospital. The administration no longer interferes with medical decisions.

We have raised $46.5 million, well in excess of our original goal of $42 million. The new Martha’s Vineyard Hospital will be, I believe, the only existing brand new hospital with the most current technology available, and no mortgage whatsoever. Not a cent.

Who made the donations?

More than 1,800 donors have contributed to the campaign to date, many of them very generously. In fact, the names of the contributors fill eight pages of the hospital’s 2008 annual report. They include five anonymous donations in excess of one million dollars each.

What I find significant is that more than 800 of the benefactors are year-round Island residents. The local support the residents have shown by digging into their own pockets to make the new hospital a reality has been outstanding. In fact, I believe that the generosity the residents showed, contributing one-third of the funds raised, had a huge effect on the contributions from those of us who don’t live here year-round. When the seasonal residents saw the level of support from the year-round residents, we knew they believed in the project. It made many supporters more likely to write a bigger check.

How did you first come to the Vineyard and how did you get involved with the hospital?

In 1981, my wife, Gene Marie, and I had two small children. We rented a house in Edgartown for two weeks that summer. It was a thoroughly idyllic vacation. A few years later, we began to come back for additional vacations, along with our third child. We both felt there was no place in the world like Martha’s Vineyard, so much so that, in 1989, we bought a home in Edgartown. We had this new home built on Deep Bottom Pond in West Tisbury in 1997.

As our interest in Martha’s Vineyard grew, we subscribed to the Vineyard Gazette, receiving it throughout the year at our home in Park Ridge, New Jersey. We were both fascinated and disturbed by the ongoing stories about management problems at the hospital. Various CEOs came and went, and the board was in flux. There was constant fighting and friction among CEOs, board members, and physicians.

As I got to know people here on the Island, they naturally became aware that I was CEO of Hackensack University Medical Center in Bergen County, New Jersey, the fourth largest hospital in the nation in terms of in-patient admissions. In fact, Hackensack is larger than any hospital in New York, other than the combined Columbia Presbyterian and NYU Medical Center, in terms of in-patient admissions.

In 2000, I was asked to join the board of Martha’s Vineyard Hospital. Two years later, they asked me to become chairman.

Given the troubled history of the hospital and its reputation for infighting among the board members, what was your reaction to being on, and ultimately chairing, the board?

When I joined the board, Martha’s Vineyard Hospital was a fledgling, nineteen-bed hospital with a poor reputation. During my first two years, the board members made an effort to get along, but there remained continuous bickering between the CEO and the medical staff. The story is legend on the Vineyard, and the dynamic certainly didn’t lend itself to the comfort level of the people on the Vineyard regarding their healthcare needs.

When I was asked to chair the board, I told the members of the board that I would accept the position if they would work with me to make Martha’s Vineyard Hospital a better hospital. I told them that if they were interested in making the hospital a quality institution, I’d be happy to try to help. But if not, if things continued as they had, I wouldn’t do it.

The board members agreed to pursue the high road. The chairman at the time, Ted Morgan, and Tim Sweet, who is now the vice chairman, helped drive that effort. So I took over as chairman with the goal of resolving the previously existing problems in mind.

How does overseeing a large hospital like Hackensack University Medical Center compare with overseeing the needs of tiny Martha’s Vineyard Hospital?

Believe it or not, our challenges are the same – just on a different scale. In both venues, our product is quality healthcare. Whether the hospital is big or small, the mission is always the same. In order to fulfill that mission it is imperative that we attract the highest quality physicians and healthcare professionals. As a result we provide care that is compassionate, empathic, and responsive to the needs and preferences of individual patients and their loved ones.

Why would you take on such a daunting task as chairing the hospital board during what was supposed to be your downtime, vacationing on the Vineyard?

I’m not one to rest on my laurels, and I’m not afraid of hard work. But most important to me was that the residents of the Vineyard had real reason for concern about the capabilities and the type of medical care available at the only hospital to which they had quick access. Another factor has to do with my own concerns about the safety of my family. My wife and children and I spend a substantial amount of time on the Vineyard. If the only quickly accessible hospital is not a quality institution, any of us could find ourselves in lots of trouble.

The state of the healthcare system is a huge concern in this country. What are your thoughts?

The healthcare system in the United States is sick and in need of a cure. This isn’t news to those of us in the industry or to patients either. Almost everyone knows someone who is without health insurance and struggling to pay for medical care, prescriptions, or preventive screenings. Healthcare costs have skyrocketed over the past twenty years.

Now is the time to focus on a new model of healthcare delivery and that is prevention. We need to emphasize healthy living programs such as exercise, nutrition, smoking cessation, screenings, and more in order to control healthcare costs. Unbelievably, this country has seen a tremendous rise in its morbidity and mortality rates. It doesn’t make sense – our nation spends more on healthcare than any other. Something’s obviously wrong here. Our elected officials have to make this concern a priority.

Another growing concern is the incidence of medical errors: They equate to billions of dollars in excess costs to our nation’s healthcare system as well as thousands of lives lost. Airline pilots can’t make mistakes – neither can healthcare professionals. This broken system must be fixed so a safer environment is created. We need to come up with a solution to ensure that our healthcare system remains solvent. And we need to do it soon.

Let’s talk more about your downtime here on-Island. Your property at Deep Bottom Pond has a communal horse farm. Are there any equestrians in your family?

Actually, no one in the family rides horses much. But we love having them roaming free in our own backyard. In fact, Gene Marie and I had the house designed so we would be able to see them behind the house. We like to feed them and watch them, but, for us, horses are like boats.

Horses are like boats?

What I mean is that we like to enjoy our friends’ horses and our friends’ boats – but we choose not to have either a horse or a boat of our own. It’s much easier that way.

I understand you are a huge fan of the movie Jaws.

To say I’m a fan of the film is an understatement. I – and my entire family – are obsessed with that film. The screened porch in the back of our house is affectionately called The Jaws Room. It’s decorated with Jaws memorabilia from posters to the prototype of the weather vane used in the film. Gene Marie and our daughter Kate chose our favorite expressions from the film and had them stenciled on the walls.

Beyond that we’ve had Jaws-themed parties. At one of these parties, I went so far as to have a jacket made that mimicked the classic light blue jacket with blue anchors on it that was worn by the mayor of Amity Island in the film. It was great for the party, but it’s definitely not something I’d wear outside the house!

Other than your work for the hospital, how do you spend your time on the Vineyard?

I’m fortunate to have been able to spend close to half the summer here in recent years. Although I’ve retired from Hackensack University Medical Center, I will continue to consult for them. Still, this new schedule will allow me to spend more time on the Vineyard. I enjoy so many of the activities that are easily available here. Golf and tennis are my favorites. We also spend a lot of time at the beach, entertaining, and dining out with friends. And, of course, enjoying other people’s horses and going out on their boats!

How have you celebrated Martha’s Vineyard as a special place in your life?

One great example would be the weddings of my son and my daughter. Both had Vineyard weddings. Our home has become a gathering place for our three children to visit. It’s a destination for them. In fact, they enjoy visiting us on the Vineyard a lot more than a trip to our home in New Jersey! And best of all, visits now include our first grandchild, Finn, who is almost two years old.

So, will you spend more time on Martha’s Vineyard than in New Jersey now?

Actually, Gene Marie and I are planning to move from New Jersey to Manhattan. But we will definitely be spending more time on Martha’s Vineyard than we did in the past. Or to quote one of my favorite lines from Jaws, “When do I get to become an Islander?”