Photo by Michael Ventura
John Sackett is running late.
He’s supposed to be downstairs in 20 minutes to talk to a room full of new employees. But before he can do that, before he can give a speech about the Adventist HealthCare mission, he has to sit in a treatment room in the cardiopulmonary department and make himself cough. He walks up to respiratory therapy on the second floor of Shady Grove Medical Center in Rockville almost every weekday afternoon. He doesn’t have a choice. He was born with cystic fibrosis (CF)—if he doesn’t clear his airways, it will be difficult for him to breathe.
Sackett, who moved to Montgomery County from Louisville, Colorado, two years ago, is president of Shady Grove, and at times also a patient. His assistant tries to schedule his calendar around therapy, which he often fits in between meetings. He sits down on a hospital bed, and his respiratory therapist, John Herbert, listens to his lungs. Then they start the breathing treatments.
At 58, Sackett is older than most people who have CF. Even Herbert was surprised by his age—50 years ago, children diagnosed with the disease often died before they started elementary school. Now the median predicted age of survival is in the early 40s. Sackett’s younger sister Audrey, who also had CF, died when she was 34. Friends have told Sackett they can’t believe he’s still alive.
When he arrives for therapy, Sackett puts the tip of his finger into a pulse oximeter to measure his blood oxygen level. Today’s reading is 98 percent. “That’s a good sign,” he says. When his lungs are infected, it can drop to 78 percent, dangerously low, and he has to go on IV antibiotics and supplemental oxygen. During his last few years in Colorado, where the elevation is higher than Maryland, he had to wear oxygen when he slept.
By now, he’s used to this routine. Nebulizers. Inhaled medications. Someone tapping on his back with a high-speed handheld device to loosen the secretions in his lungs. The treatment leaves his throat dry, which can make it harder for him to talk, but he won’t miss this afternoon’s orientation.
Sackett, who is president of Shady Grove, goes to respiratory therapy while he’s at work, part of his treatment for cystic fibrosis. During breaks, he and his therapist, John Herbert, often chat about baseball or football. Photo by Michael Ventura
That’s when he gets to tell new employees, in a 90-minute speech that resembles a sermon, that he believes in living life with meaning and purpose, and using your talents to help others. That’s when he talks about the importance of making patients feel valued by sitting down next to them and asking about their lives, and tells members of his staff that if they aren’t comfortable doing those things, they shouldn’t be there.
For Sackett, it’s simple: He wants to help make Shady Grove a first-rate hospital, and he doesn’t have time to waste.
A HIGH SCHOOL choir director took Sackett aside one day when he was 14 and told him she’d seen his report card and that it wasn’t acceptable. “I’m sorry you have CF, but the world really doesn’t care,” the woman told him. “I think you’re capable of getting A’s—so buck up.”
It was the first time anyone had spoken to him that way. Teachers had never seemed too concerned about his schoolwork because they didn’t expect him to live very long. “I went home, and the more I thought about that, the more excited I got,” Sackett says. “She had greater expectations for my life than I did.”
Cystic fibrosis, which currently affects about 30,000 people in the United States, is a life-threatening genetic disease characterized by a buildup of thick mucus and subsequent chronic infection that severely damages the lungs and digestive system. So much progress has been made in treating CF that more adults than children are currently living with the disease.
When Sackett was younger, he suffered from cramping and indigestion. So I have a stomachache, he started telling himself after the conversation with the choir director. No excuse. His grades went up that year, and he decided he wouldn’t let CF hold him back. He went on to college and graduate school, then followed his father, Ron, into hospital administration.
Before coming to Shady Grove in April 2013, Sackett spent 24 years as president and CEO of Avista Adventist Hospital in Louisville, Colorado, just outside of Boulder. Under his leadership, the hospital’s physician and patient satisfaction scores were among the highest in the country. Terry Forde, president and CEO of Adventist HealthCare, the Gaithersburg-based non-profit organization that operates Shady Grove, had worked with Sackett in Colorado. He called Sackett in early 2013 and asked him to come visit Shady Grove (recently renamed Adventist HealthCare Shady Grove Medical Center), an acute-care facility with 305 licensed beds. “He said, ‘John, I want you to come to Maryland because we have a world-class community, but the hospital isn’t living up to its potential,’ ” Sackett says.
The hospital had struggled with its reputation—Shady Grove was in danger of losing its accreditation in 1999—but made significant improvements. “The hospital was doing fine, but we didn’t want to just be average, the middle of the pack,” says Forde, who joined Adventist HealthCare in 2011.
“John’s idea is that we set the bar very high.”
Sackett and his wife, Sue, liked the idea of being near the nation’s capital, and their children, Greg, now 24, and Rena, now 21, were already in college. Sackett had studied political science and spent six years on the Louisville City Council; besides his father, his heroes are former U.S. presidents. He knew he would have to leave Colorado eventually because it was getting harder for him to breathe—he could no longer ski without oxygen. “If you live in Colorado and you can’t go to the mountains, you might as well live in Kansas,” he says.
Sackett’s team at Avista shipped his belongings to Shady Grove before he arrived. His new assistant, Lisa Eden, was unpacking boxes when she found a book about CF. She didn’t know much about the disease, so she sat on the floor of Sackett’s office and read every page. She couldn’t believe how far he’d come while facing such a serious illness.
“Does CF ever affect your job performance?” she later asked him.
“It never has,” he said.
When Sackett speaks, he sometimes has to cough or clear his throat. Once in a while his doctor, Michael Boyle, the director of the Adult Cystic Fibrosis Program at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, has to tell him to slow down and take time to make his health a priority. In addition to his role at Shady Grove, he is executive vice president and chief operating officer of Adventist HealthCare, which is the largest health care system in Montgomery County. He serves on several boards, including The Universities at Shady Grove, and plays the cello at his church, Spencerville Seventh-day Adventist in Silver Spring.