March-April 2015 | Health

Here for a Reason

As a 58-year-old living with cystic fibrosis, John Sackett has overcome incredible odds. Now, the president of Shady Grove Medical Center wants to make his hospital world class. He may be the right guy to pull it off.

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Sackett goes for a run every morning, something he’s been doing since 1976. When he runs, he coughs hard, which helps clear his lungs. “I literally run for my life,” he says. Photo by Michael Ventura

Sackett, who has diabetes because of the CF, goes for a 1-mile run in his Olney neighborhood every morning at 4:30 to help clear his lungs. He also does a breathing treatment at home before leaving for the office. Last fall, when he caught a bug and needed to go on intravenous medication, he came to work with an IV port in his arm.

“We know that’s just part of his life,” says Dr. Kevin Smothers, Shady Grove’s vice president and chief medical officer. “He’s still in his suit with his bow tie, and we go on with business.”

SACKETT'S MOTHER, EUNICE,, had a feeling something was wrong with her newborn son when he couldn’t digest breast milk. A healthy 8 pounds when he came home from the hospital in Napa Valley, California, he quickly began losing weight. A doctor suggested that Eunice switch to formula, but that made her baby worse. She decided to try powdered milk, which didn’t have fat, and for a while, that was the only thing he could tolerate.

When Sackett was a toddler, Eunice gave him mostly rice, bananas and skim milk while doctors tried to figure out why he couldn’t digest fat. As time went on, Eunice started doing research on her own—she saw nothing about CF in the medical journals.

“I found it in Dr. Spock’s book,” she says. “It was called pancreatic fibrosis at the time, and when he described the symptoms, I said, ‘My goodness, that’s John.’ ”  


Sackett and his wife, Sue, have two children: Greg, 24, and Rena, 21. As a father, he says, he’s tried to show his kids that life has a lot of joy to offer, no matter what you’re dealing with. Photo by Michael Ventura

A doctor gave Sackett a “sweat test,” the gold standard for diagnosing CF, in order to measure the amount of chloride in his sweat. He briefly placed John’s hand in a plastic bag, then asked him to put it on a charcoal plate to see if it left a residue. (Even today, Sackett’s body produces salt when he sweats a lot—after he skis, he can brush the salt off of his pants.) When the doctor saw the excess salt, he told Eunice she’d need to take her son to a hospital in Palo Alto to confirm the diagnosis. He was 6 years old.

Although neither of Sackett’s parents has CF, both carry a CF gene mutation, which means that each of their four children had a 1 in 4 chance of having the disease. John’s sister Audrey had the same symptoms he had, and their parents soon learned that she, too, had the illness. His brother, Wally, and sister Ronda did not. At the time, doctors told Eunice that their daughter, who was an infant, would likely die by the age of 6, and their son might live to be 15.

LISA EDEN IS supposed to help ensure that Sackett gets to his appointments on time. But first she has to find him. He might be chatting with employees in the cafeteria, or pointing to a burned-out lightbulb in a hospital hallway. He could be upstairs on rounds, visiting patients. “He walks out that door, he’s gone,” says Eden, who puts candy bars in Sackett’s office drawer in case his blood sugar gets low. “My mantra is: ‘I don’t know where he is.’ ”

On Sackett’s first day at Shady Grove, Eden had arranged for him to meet with some of the hospital’s physicians, but he said he wanted to talk to the housekeepers. He often reminds his staff that every job in a hospital matters. Nobody is just a food service worker or just a phlebotomist. At orientation, he tells employees that it takes five seconds for new patients to decide if they think Shady Grove is a good hospital, and they base that decision on cleanliness. Before she met Sackett, Eden didn’t know the name of the housekeeper who cleans the executive offices at Shady Grove.

Now she talks to the woman, Connie, every day.

Get to know everybody, Sackett’s father, a former hospital CEO, used to say. Never walk past a housekeeper—stop and say thank you.

When he was in high school, Sackett washed dishes in the cafeteria at the hospital his father ran and mopped floors in the obstetrics unit. He also worked as a transporter, pushing patients from their rooms to radiology, and a nurse’s aide, helping with direct care. “If you are bedridden and you need the bedpan, the orderly that brings you the bedpan and treats you with dignity is God’s gift,” Sackett says. “I realized how big of an impact you can have on people.”

As a leader, Sackett says, it’s his responsibility to create a culture in which patients and employees both feel cared for. “When I first got here—and it’s typical for big hospitals—I watched people walk through the halls and not even look at each other,” he says. At Avista, strangers said hello, so he wasn’t used to the way everybody kept to themselves. Outside the hospital, he noticed how quick drivers were to honk their horns at one another. He asked people at work what was going on. “This is just the way we treat each other,” someone said. “Welcome to the East Coast.”

“I think we can change that,” Sackett said. He instituted a “5-and-10” rule. Whenever employees come within 10 feet of somebody else—in the parking lot, a hallway, anywhere on the Shady Grove campus—they have to make eye contact with that person. If they’re 5 feet away, they’re supposed to offer a greeting, a simple “hello” or “good morning.”

“It’s hard to put on paper: ‘Here’s how to be nice,’ but that’s basically what it is. Smile when you pass someone in the hall; if you see trash, pick it up,” says Sackett’s former assistant, Tammy Smith, who worked with him at Avista for 22 years. “His goal is to inspire you to care.”

When he first came to Shady Grove, Sackett says, some people thought he was Pollyannaish, that his aspirations were unrealistic. “One thing we’re trying to do is get stricter about who we hire,” he says. “I’m trying to make the culture galvanizing—you either love working here or you hate it.”

Early on at a meeting with hospital leaders, Sackett pointed to a purple line on a graph—indicating world-class results in quality, safety, employee and patient satisfaction and other performance areas—and told them that they would get there. “They were both excited and terrified,” Sackett says. “You have to be willing to beat the odds. That’s where the CF comes in—I’m not intimidated by the odds.”