The Other Side of Health Care
Healthcare administrators took different roads to their professions, but share the desire to help people.
The importance of health care has not been this prominent in a long time. As I write this, the coronavirus has practically shut down the country. As people stay indoors, fearful of what they touch, reminders come about. History lessons about the Spanish Flu almost 100 years ago, which killed millions, are brought back to life. By the time you read this, it will either be worse or, hopefully, better. But it won’t be easily forgotten. For the five alumni health care administrators we interviewed, one common trait—to help people—led them to the profession, even if their roads were different. Spirit, mind, and body—not just a college mantra, but a philosophy that these five exhibit in their professional lives. We may not know whether the current pandemic facing the world is soon one for the time capsule, or if it will linger, but we know these five are there to help tackle it.
Finding His Serious Side
William Plunkett ’65 is known the world over. Setting his sights decades ago on putting an end to leukemia, Professor Plunkett, of MD Anderson Cancer Center—one of the leading medical institutions in existence—is a legend. But, his love of biology, which set him on destiny’s road, began at Springfield College for someone who, admittedly, hadn’t been a high-minded student during high school days. “I was overcome with wonder by these classes,” he says. “Springfield College was a major moment in my life, and I give it a lot of credit for putting me on the road of academic research. I was so intrigued by the material and how it was presented—suddenly, somehow, I was becoming a truly serious student.”
Plunkett’s love of biology, which set him on destiny’s road, began at Springfield College for someone who, admittedly, hadn’t been a high-minded student during high school days.
And, his work has never been more serious than now, his laboratory a part of important achievements with hope for more to come. “Leukemias are diseases where cells can be obtained from a patient undergoing treatment, and you can really evaluate what’s going on in the patient through pharmacodynamics, the effect of the drug on the biological system,” he says. This was novel years ago, he explains, and still is very difficult.
“There is a lot more hope now, and it’s justified. Scientists can see down the line,” he says, explaining that if they knew the driving factor in disease state for leukemia, as well as had greater molecular knowledge of how cells are affected by gene mutations, for example, they could recognize a particular target and not just focus on a broad spectrum.
One of his roles is deputy chairman in the department of experimental therapeutics at the center, but he doesn’t think of it as administratively cumbersome, just an opportunity for someone to offer experience. “We work and collaborate but it’s not requiring traditional organization tasks, as you might think,” he says.
He’s also enjoyed providing direction for students. “It’s incredibly rewarding to transmit the excitement we feel about our work and share knowledge,” says Plunkett, who holds the Barnts Family Distinguished Chair for Cancer Research.
Plunkett’s accolades, as you might guess, are many. Among them, recipient of the Service to Mankind Award from the Leukemia Society of America in 1989 and the John Mendelsohn Lifetime Scientific Achievement Award in 2016.
The five decades since he left Alden Street have quickly flown by, he says, but having found both his life’s work and his wife, Joanne, there he considers Springfield College the springboard he needed to better his life as well as the lives of others. “Springfield College is a special place,” he says. “And, it’s a special place to many.”
That’s a First
Liz Almeida-Sanborn ’87, G’88, president and founder of Preferred Therapy Solutions in Wethersfield, Conn., learned about helping people at a young age. With parents who immigrated from Portugal, Almeida-Sanborn—a first generation American—was often in the position of translator and helping her parents navigate American customs. It was in her high school years that she first was introduced to physical therapy, working summers in a developmental day program for children with special needs. She also loved working as a waitress, and her effervescent personality makes it easy to imagine her gliding from table to table, grabbing orders and causing smiles. “Both taught me a great deal about the impact of helping others, in big and small ways.”
Springfield College invited Almeida-Sanborn in as part of its inaugural class for physical therapy.
And talk about timing. Springfield College invited her in as part of its inaugural class for physical therapy. “The first-year faculty and student body were tremendously close, because it was up to all of us for this to succeed,” she says. When asked about influential faculty during this time, Almeida-Sanborn says, “That would be David Miller.” He was, at the time, the anatomy and physiology professor for the first cohort. He went on to chair the Department of Physical Therapy, later serving as dean of the School of Health Sciences and Rehabilitation Studies. “I was completely inspired by him from the start, mostly because he’s brilliant and I loved A&P, but also because of his passion for physical therapy.”
More than 30 years later, the physical therapy program is an inspiring success, as is Almeida-Sanborn. Following a succession of clinical and leadership physical therapy positions, she founded Preferred Therapy Solutions, a rehabilitation company that primarily serves older adults in the post-acute care setting. “Older adult and geriatric physical therapy was for me, because I just love these people,” she says. “There is so much to learn from our elders, and I have often relied on their advice and perspective. In that way, I guess we help each other.”
Almeida-Sanborn never forgot the Springfield College foundation or the Humanics philosophy. “’Leadership in service to others resonated with me, then and now,” she says. Almeida-Sanborn continues to have close ties to the College, and has served in a variety of ways, including as an adjunct professor, a guest lecturer for the physical therapy program, and as an Accepted Students Day speaker where she helps quell the anxiety of nervous parents and incoming first-year students.
The College also contributed to her personal foundation, as she met her husband, Jerry Sanborn, while she attended Springfield College. They have two children, son, Cody, and daughter, Kayla. Kayla now continues the Springfield College tradition as part of the 2020 physical therapy doctoral class.
A Matter of Adjustment
Jake Socha ’90 learned as a player on the Springfield College soccer team about leadership, teamwork, and adjusting to the situation. “I think a key moment was adjusting in terms of position,” says Socha, who now is division president of Vibra Healthcare/Ernest Healthcare, most recently serving as senior vice president of hospital operations for LifeCare Hospital Services, a Dallas-based, post-acute health care company. “Coach [Peter Haley] utilized me in ways I wasn’t used to,” he says. “I could have been uncomfortable, but the way he communicated—that it was something he thought I could do, and I could help—you learned it’s about adjusting to what’s best for all.”
“My first daughter was diagnosed with a massive brain tumor at the age of four, and I saw how well the hospital took care of her. It just fired something in my belly that … maybe I can’t operate or care for a patient directly, but I could apply best practices to make sure their experiences are world class”
Spirit, mind, and body spoke to him back then and continues to have his ear today.
“To me it means that you have to take care of the full patient,” says Socha, who focuses on rural community-based healthcare. “You need to figure out how to serve them, and also keep a business going. We deal with so many issues—insurance, many regulations—and you have to constantly stay on top of things, but, it’s all about serving the patient…
“When you remember it’s about people, everyone benefits.”
Socha believed his future was in soccer as a coach, envisioning himself as one day maybe even coaching for the national team. Meeting his wife invited a new team into his life. His mother-in-law ran a 50-bed hospital where she believed Socha could be a valuable member. “We even did start-ups in sports medicine and sports prevention in the workplace,” he says. “Again, it was like my coach believing I could do something different. I went into management ultimately and my passion for caring for people came through early on.”
Like Christine Brown, below, Socha’s career was partly steered by a health event in his family. “My first daughter was diagnosed with a massive brain tumor at the age of four, and I saw how well the hospital took care of her,” he says. “It just fired something in my belly that … maybe I can’t operate or care for a patient directly, but I could apply best practices to make sure their experiences are/were world class … whether it’s in one of our inpatient rehab hospitals, outpatient centers … or long-term acute care hospitals. It’s a passion that turned into a business principle.”
And, his little daughter? Not so little anymore, now 23 years old and playing Division 1 soccer. And, you hear in his words not just pride that she continued that college soccer tradition but that she’s just out there and healthy. “I couldn’t be any prouder of her,” he says, his voice slightly trailing off.
Prior to Socha’s current roles, he was the CEO of Vibra Hospital in Springfield and was CEO for two Kindred Healthcare hospitals. He’s humbled by his experience and he’s up for problems to solve. He’s up for caring. He’s up for adjusting.
“My coach did me a favor all those years ago,” he says. “Those were great times.”
Christine Brown, G’01, knows firsthand what kind of effect Phenylketonuria (PKU) can have on the lives of those who have it. Two of her own children were diagnosed with it. If you’ve never heard of it, Brown knows, and she’s out to change that and to help the roughly 16,500 people in the United States with the condition, which doesn’t allow the body to process natural protein and can cause severe brain damage.
“You hear ‘no’ a lot in what we do, but you keep going,” she says. “It’s about having a process and going with it. You think about the people you’re helping and it drives you.”
Brown had success as director of the Coalition for a Tobacco Free Vermont and the executive director for Umbrella, Inc. She received her Master of Science in organizational management and leadership from Springfield College, and believes her education gave her the anchor that allows her to lead today. “I was just referencing my [management-related] book the other day from Springfield College,” she says. “It layed the groundwork and keeps on giving me confidence in coming up with plans that can work.”
Starting out there as a volunteer, Brown now is the executive director of the National PKU Alliance, a role she’s held for more than a decade. “You hear ‘no’ a lot in what we do, but you keep going,” she says. “It’s about having a process and going with it. You think about the people you’re helping and it drives you.”
Brown took over very early on in the alliance’s existence, taking it from an annual budget of $180,000 to one that hovers around $1.8 million. When she started, she was the only staff person. They now are seven strong.
Brown is committed—whether through lobbying on Capitol Hill armed with personal stories and professional knowledge, fundraising events, or many of her other strategies—to standing up for those with PKU.
“As a director, I built this organization from the ground up in terms of managing and growing on a day-to-day basis, and we’ve been able to fund rare disease research and expand knowledge of PKU, particularly in how it affects the brain. Some of what we have funded in research and fellowship grants has advanced clinical trials … We have become involved a great deal in public policy, working with the FDA and the NIH, for example.”
But, Brown never forgets how it began for her, and remembers families are dealing with the same issues she’s had and that she and her staff can be their voice. “It’s about making a difference in people’s lives,” she says. “You just keep remembering: it can be done.”
Positioned to Lead
Tamara Owen ’84, G’86, may have left the college softball field, but the lessons she learned there were never retired. Today she is president and CEO of Visually Impaired Advancement (VIA), a lifeline for those with sight issues, offering services to help children and adults who are blind to live productive, independent, and joyful lives.
“I see my job as helping to take care of operations so we can focus on what truly matters: people.”
Previously president of Buffalo General Medical Center/Gates Vascular Institute, which had close to 460 beds, she takes her firm leadership knowledge into what she does today. “It’s not so different from when I was playing on that softball field,” says Owen, who also is a past president of Millard Fillmore Gates Circle Hospital. “You need people with different strengths who can work together towards a common goal.”
Owen always felt she was a person who cared about serving others, and she has a strong affinity for the group she currently represents. “You have an appreciation for how difficult it can be to have sight issues, but you also recognize how capable people can be if you help them to maximize their strengths,” she says.
Leading a hospital taught her a greater sense of balance, an important trait in serving people and running a business of this size. In fact, VIA has around 175 employees and an operating revenue of roughly $9.5 million. “I see my job as helping to take care of operations so we can focus on what truly matters: people.”
Owen knows dealing with the administrative issues of budgeting, medical regulations, and staffing may not be what makes for an episode of your favorite medical drama. But, she believes that, if you do it right, you can limit the drama and focus on the people you serve.
In fact, Owen finds her career to be a perfect fit and is thankful that she’s had the privilege to go down this path. “I think caring for people is an honor,” she says. “They’re trusting us and looking to us to be of assistance. It just comes down to wanting to make someone’s life better. If you don’t, to me, aren’t you in the wrong field?”