After working in many different types of health systems, I was offered the opportunity to become the president and CEO of Beebe Healthcare, an independent, community-based healthcare system in Sussex County, Del. The role was an exciting chance to lead a complex healthcare system serving a diverse community with many challenges and opportunities. But one thing I did not know at the time is how my first 100-plus days at the organization would be dedicated to addressing a global pandemic at the community level.
Prior to beginning my new role, I embarked on a planned 10-day drive across America to relax, think and reflect upon my upcoming first 100 days at Beebe. About two days into my drive, somewhere in New Mexico, my wife called and told me that the novel coronavirus was spreading in different parts of the country, including parts of the east coast. She is my biggest supporter and adviser, and she recommended strongly that I should get back to Delaware and start working as soon as possible to lead during this crisis. I started on March 17, right before things really got bad in New York City and other nearby locations.
The first month of the pandemic here in Delaware was truly like drinking from a fire hose. Although my training in the U.S. Navy had given me experience and understanding of the medical and operational aspects related to this public health crisis, I was suddenly the leader of an organization that I knew little about. I found myself doing a new chief executive’s tasks in the framework of battling COVID-19. I watched and learned the team’s ability to get things done such as developing one of the earliest mobile testing events that are now seen throughout the country in other hotspots, re-engineering ICUs to support more negative pressure rooms and increasing internal testing capacity.
The organization had been without a permanent CEO for about a year, and so I quickly realized that there was an internal and community desire for demonstrable leadership. I focused on reaching out to the community rapidly. Three days after starting, I was asked to speak at a press conference with the governor of Delaware about the pandemic.
I soon realized that communication—internal and external—was a critical part of my new role. Being a physician gave me credibility, and my experience as a naval officer helped me with the fundamentals of public speaking. But I found myself constantly on stage, something I had not done much in the past. We used video conferencing technology to hold multiple town halls with employees, board members, community leaders and the public. I spent a great deal of time using social media to monitor public sentiment and constantly communicating about testing, hospital operations and clinic availability. We held “Facebook Live” events at our mass mobile testing events in multiple languages to ensure our communities knew what was happening and where to go. My time in the military taught me that leaders lead from the front. At a time of organizational change and a global pandemic, it was necessary for me to jump onto center stage and shape the dialogue in our community. The military also taught me that “leaders eat last,” and I used the platform to continue influencing the community’s support of our tireless and dedicated staff who are truly the heroes of this pandemic. And so, I rounded incessantly to continue checking in with the team.
The first lesson I learned from my first 100 days as a new CEO was to truly connect with people. This was a difficult thing with the community on lock down, but the pandemic gave me the opportunity to reach out with urgency as we worked to fight the pandemic here in our corner of the world.
I was a senior leader in the military on 9/11 and during the Global War on Terrorism. I was also a hospital CEO during some of the wildfires that ravaged southern California. The COVID-19 pandemic, however, is not like any crisis I have experienced. The second lesson I am still learning is that this crisis requires personal resilience. Unlike past crises where you could “gut it through” till things quieted down, we are now in our fourth month still dealing with the uncertainties of COVID-19. Testing is still scarce, and hot spots continue to flare up throughout the country. Beebe continues to recover from the financial challenges that almost all other health systems are facing. And without a vaccine, our communities struggle with the requirements of physical distancing and other healthcare challenges as we work to keep our beach businesses open, determine what is best for our children and schools, and ensure the safety of patients as we provide the care they need.
I came to Beebe Healthcare because I wanted to lead an independent, community based nonprofit health system. Such organizations are facing challenges because of the evolving healthcare landscapes. But, in my opinion, Beebe and other such systems are critical to meeting the needs of the communities we serve in a personal, empathic and inclusive manner. Jumping into the deep end during the COVID-19 pandemic turned out to be the best way for me to start my tenure. Although there is much more to learn and do, I have a firm personal and professional conviction that I am in the right role; that this organization and community are the right place for me. I am excited about the future.
David A. Tam, MD, FACHE, is president/CEO, Beebe Healthcare, Lewes, Del. (email@example.com).