A Hospital Pioneer

Hospitals were sacred ground to Greg Kelly's physician-dad-clean and caring at a minimum; life transforming and medically heroic at their best. Kelly recounts the role his father played in helping a local hospital grow and prosper.

“After two days in the hospital, I took a turn for the nurse.”

—W. C. Fields

Hospitals were sacred ground to my physician-dad—clean and caring at a minimum; life transforming and medically heroic at their best. He spent a large portion of his professional life inside their doors.

A passionate advocate for America’s hospitals (today there are about 5,700 of them nationwide), dad frequently gave full voice in recognition of their hard work and achievements. And though he knew well their limitations, he didn’t take kindly to criticism of hospitals.

My dad’s doctor stomping grounds was Riverview Hospital (it’s now Riverview Medical Center, with 492-beds and $1.2 billion in gross revenues, and part of the growing Meridian Health system) located in Red Bank, NJ.

He served on the medical staff there for nearly 40 years and was its president for a 2-year term from 1979-1980. The challenges he faced (sometimes it “was a living hell” he told me) in that leadership role took a lot out of him and probably had an adverse impact on his family and his medical practice. When I once asked him why he did it, he simply replied: “it was my turn.”

From what I’ve been told by knowledgeable hospital personnel, dad was something of a pioneer at the Riverview. When it first opened back in the late 1920s, the hospital was housed in an old boarding house and had with just 29 beds and one operating room. When my father arrived in the mid 1950s, it still wasn’t a very big deal. I’m told that he brought a real credibility to a then small healthcare institution.

Very well trained for his day, my father (along with his medical partner, Dr. George Sheehan) was well regarded for his skill at patient diagnosis and treatment. Dad helped establish the hospital’s cardiology department, was among the first doctors to promote physical rehab for stroke patients, and served as a strong advocate of Riverview’s doctors and nurses.

Back in dad’s time, they didn’t give out awards or make lists for the best hospitals, but I think his workplace would have done well. In recent times, Riverview has been an 8-time recipient of the “Distinguished” rating from the J.D. Power and Associates Hospital Program. The designation marks the hospital as “one of the most prestigious healthcare distinctions in the nation.”

Meridian is making area news for recently completing negotiations with the well-regarded Hackensack University Medical Center to merge the 2 systems. The merger will create New Jersey’s largest hospital network with 23,000 employees and $3.4 billion in revenues.

In addition to Riverview, the current Meridian network in New Jersey comprises: Jersey Shore University Medical Center in Neptune; Ocean Medical Center in Brick; Southern Ocean Medical Center in Manahawkin; Bayshore Community Hospital in Holmdel; Raritan Bay Medical Center in Old Bridge and Raritan Bay Medical Center in Perth Amboy. Hackensack’s network includes Hackensack Hospital, the Joseph M. Sanzari Children’s Hospital, HackensackUMC at Pascack Valley, HackensackUMC Mountainside and Palisades Medical Center.

Dad’s tenure as medical staff president coincided with the Riverview’s 50th anniversary—a time period when the institution was contemplating its future. A major expansion and technology investment was under consideration. While it wasn’t a big bucks venture of today, it was still a very sizable investment and some thought it too much for the area.

So my father went on a local radio program to help promote the project. When he was asked about the need and the cost, I’ll never forget his response: “If we don’t make these improvements, we run the risk of being labeled a second-rate hospital.” I give my father a lot of credit for helping make Riverview, indeed the entire Meridian system, the exceptional healthcare leader that it is today—far from “second-rate.”