As a Vice President at Mercy Hospital, the Chief Communications Officer at Conemaugh (now Duke Lifepoint) and finally a CEO at Windber Medical Center, I became a frontline recipient of the knowledge needed to help change our system from sick care to wellness and prevention care. The problem was that we had directed all of our country’s resources to sickness. It became increasingly apparent that if we didn’t create massive changes in the system, the Baby Boomers would bankrupt the country and create a generation of children that would not live as long or be even as healthy as their parents.
Four critical stepping stones that appeared along my journey.
- As a 27 year old band director, I had personally experienced integrative medicine as a patient and saw the incredible value that those modalities could provide to patients.
- Another fortuitous event that occurred along my journey was that I was interviewed for a CEO position at Boys Town National Research Hospital. I was shocked and amazed when the former president of Boys Town, Father Val Peters, a Jesuit priest, introduced me to the concept of having a genome center as part of the hospital. This was in 1992, about a decade before the mapping of the genome.
- When I arrived as CEO of Windber Medical Center, I was informed by a former employee that because they had mastered a surgical technique that was unique, Windber surgeons had performed thyroid surgeries on several luminaries back in the 50s and 60s. It showed me that anyone would travel for the appropriate care.
- This last step came when Congressman John Murtha took an interest in our work, and he gave us an opportunity to become involved with the healthcare within the Department of Defense.
It was the confluence of those opportunities and ideas that merged in my mind, and when we received financial support for breast cancer research though the Congressman, Dr. Craig Shriver appeared on our campus and said to me, “What do you want to do here?”
The next stream of words flowed freely out of my mouth, “I want to create the genome center for the Department of Defense for Breast Cancer.” His response was, “If you’re going to do genetics, we might as well do proteomics as well.” To which I said, “We might as well because I’m not sure what either one of them are. I’ll be the administrator you can be physician and principal investigator.” And our partnership began.
When I asked him how we would get PhD’s to come to Windber, Pennsylvania, he smiled and said, “Let me help you work on that.” When the first PhDs arrived I asked them why they had not won the Nobel Prize. Interestingly enough, they had a list of reasons that identified some of the dysfunctionality of basic science.
It was Dr. Richard Somiari who understood and embraced our vision for the Windber Research Institute. As a musician I told him that I wanted to have ensembles of scientists, not divas and he and his wife, Dr. Stella Somiari, had told me that we also wanted tissue collected in a manner that would produce the finest results.
They also said that we needed to collect patient demographic information in a way that would give the scientist the needed information to do their work. This resulted in Col. Shriver creating a 40 page protocol on how to collect tissue, and then he, Richard, and Dr. Hai Hu created a 500 question survey of demographic information to be collected from each donor.
This tissue repository, managed by Dr. Stella Somiari and managed by Jim Bombatch with over 60,000 donated breast tissue ended up being used as one of the resource centers for mapping the human breast cancer genome, and with an 84% acceptance rate, nearly triple the acceptance rate of the other major medical organizations that were involved, Windber was rated by the National Cancer Institute as the only platinum quality tissue repository in the United States.
Finally, we decided to create one central data repository to hold all of the collected information.
Fifteen years later, Tom Kurtz, CEO of both the Research Institute and Medical Center made one phone call which captured the imagination of Dr. Patrick Soon Shiong that has led to a remarkable partnership, the first of many that will launch Windber and the Johnstown area into one of the top ranking centers of excellence and cancer care in United States and the world.
Congratulations, Tom and the Board members who embraced this opportunity and to Dr. Soon Shiong for your amazing vision. I love it when a plan comes together, and I couldn’t be more proud of my friends and former colleagues.