October 28, 2013

Adventist Life


It’s a chilly night, but everything about the evening feels warm, as more than 800 people—doctors, nurses, caregivers, staff—stream into the hospital’s annual employee recognition dinner in the snowy suburb of Boulder, Colorado.

It’s a tradition that consistently draws standing-room-only crowds and that brings the Avista Adventist Hospital family together and reinforces their culture of mission.

Tonight there will be good food, prizes, decorations, and laughter. 

But it will begin with a moment of quiet contemplation and prayer, while John Sackett, chief executive officer, takes the stage with his cello to take part in what has now become a tradition: playing “The Lord’s Prayer” for his extended hospital family.

Sackett will tell you he’s not an accomplished or gifted musician. For him, it’s not a performance, but a prayer—a way of being vulnerable and personal as a leader. He hopes it will be a gift from his heart that allows them to collectively enter a moment of prayer that binds them together.

“I’m always amazed by how the Holy Spirit blesses our human effort, and because of this, people recognize that they’re participating in a spiritual moment,” he says. “Prayer is the most intimate form of care.”

A Long Way From There to Here

Sackett’s love for this hospital’s mission and people has characterized his work at Avista from the day he was hired as an administrative assistant at Boulder Memorial Hospital 31 years ago. As CEO, he eventually oversaw the building of Avista, and is always quick to acknowledge the work of his team and divine guidance when there’s mention of success. 

While most hospital executives stay fewer than six years at any one hospital, Sackett’s 23 as Avista’s CEO puts him on a short list among health-care leaders—and gives him a deep love for the hospital, its history, and his community.

He’ll be the first to admit that those years have been transforming years both for the hospital—and for himself.

As one of those people who values the past and imagines the future with equal force, it seems fitting that he serves at the hospital with such historical significance to both the region and the Seventh-day Adventist Church—the hospital whose roots go back to the establishment of Colorado Sanitarium, later known as Boulder Sanitarium.

“Our mission has been the same for 100 years,” says Sackett, reflecting on the sometimes difficult journey. “It’s a sobering responsibility to be the CEO of an organization that was the third Adventist hospital to be opened. If you look at the board minutes of those early days, the people gave their lifeblood to keep this organization going. It would be tragic if the mission were lost because I didn’t do my job in the best way I could. I value the legacy. And if Ellen White came back to see Avista, I would hope that she would say, ‘This is exactly what our church’s health-care institutions should be doing.’ She was revolutionary.”

Sackett will tell you that being a hospital CEO is a spiritual journey—one that brings him into a close realization of his inadequacy to solve every challenge they face, and one that forces him to his knees to look for divine guidance.

“Sometimes you throw your hands up and recognize that ‘there’s nothing more I can do’ about a situation. I have to come to a point where I hand it off to God. I can be dedicated, loyal, and hardworking, but there’s an acknowledgement in this kind of leadership that one can reach the end of his own abilities,” he adds. “All of this is humbling, and increases your reliance on God in a more mature way.”

If Jesus Were to Walk These Halls

Sackett will tell you that although good business practices are essential, health care shouldn’t think of itself as a big business—but as a mission. The delicate line between profit and people must always retain a healthy tension.

He recalls a time he was asked to go to an ICU where a friend was dying of emphysema. In the corner sat the man’s grandson, crying.

“I told him that we were a praying hospital, and asked if it would be OK if I prayed for his grandfather, who was in a coma. I did, and then the emotions broke free. Later his grandmother told me how healing that moment was. That’s what Jesus was about.”

Sackett likes to talk about the principles that can guide Adventist health care today if we look at Jesus’ work as healer. They’re simple, but not automatic.

First, he says, although Jesus could have conducted a mass-healing event, He healed each person individually and in person—one at a time. Doing this honors the uniqueness of each person.

Second, Jesus went out of His way to value those whom society undervalued. “We’re a productivity-based society, so people who can’t produce might be overlooked. Often we see this in the elderly, the very young, or people with physical or mental handicaps.”

Third, Jesus almost always touched those He healed. “Sacred, appropriate touch is an aspect of healing. Prayer is a part of this.”

Prayer, he insists, is part of what’s unique about an Adventist hospital, and something he’s intentional about. Each morning a prayer is read over Avista’s intercom. On Wednesdays the administrative group prays for the hospital, their employees, their patients, and any prayer requests they receive. His staff is encouraged to pray with patients themselves, if they feel called to do so, rather than calling a chaplain. All this, he says, is mission work.

Brian, the Avista security supervisor, is a good example of this. He happened upon a terrified patient, 20 weeks pregnant with twins, when things were not going well. Serious medical complications threatened the lives of her babies, and she was being readied for urgent transport to a higher level of care. Brian knew there was no time to call a chaplain, but he also felt impressed to pray for the family. The words of Sackett encouraging the staff to pray with patients as they felt called to do so came to his mind, and he pushed past his hesitance and asked God to give him the words to say. Since then, he’s set a goal of finding someone to pray with every day, and he encourages his team to do likewise.

And finally, Jesus asks nothing in return. “We don’t do this to make others become Adventists, but because we are Adventists. It’s a ministry. Jesus didn’t ask people what they believed before He healed them. He just saw a need and took care of it. When people are ill, they aren’t focused on the nuances of theology. They want to know that God loves them, and that the people taking care of them love them,” says Sackett. 

To live and work in an Adventist hospital, he contends, is to bring a glimpse of God into the lives of people when they’re most vulnerable. New life, death, crisis—the most deeply human experiences—often occur in a hospital. So creating a culture that sees the sacredness of these moments is important to him and to their patients. “People with strong families and a faith in God and heaven die more peacefully,” he says.

Seeing the Hospital From Both Sides

Sackett’s story as a health-care leader can’t be separated from his personal battle with cystic fibrosis, which, at the time he was born, predicted an average lifespan of 12 years.

It’s given the energetic 56-year-old Sackett a unique vantage point to a hospital as both CEO and patient, and has made him an ardent evangelist for the unique brand of health care that Adventism is capable of delivering.

“I’ve tried to leverage my experience as a patient on behalf of our patients,” he says. “We pay a lot of attention to the whole patient experience—how food tastes, how clean the hospital is, allowing patients to eat whatever they want whenever they want it. We were one of the first in the area to have private rooms and bathrooms.”

And today, not only is there a distinctly spiritual atmosphere at the hospital, Avista ranks among the nation’s top hospitals for patient, employee, and physician satisfaction.  And this, say his colleagues, can be tied at least in part to the CEO’s own insistence on paying attention to how people are treated—whether they’re employees, patients, or guests of the hospital.

But if the past has taught him anything, it’s that as a leader, he has to be intentional about mission—while always adapting to how it’s carried out.

 “When the first Adventist hospitals were founded, there simply weren’t good treatments for many diseases, so prevention had to be a focus. Now we have these things, but our country can’t afford them. So the vision for prevention that gave birth to Adventist health care has come full circle,” he says. “It’s exciting to see how our hospital has redefined itself with this focus. At times our doctors are even going into the sickest of patients’ homes to assess them and their environment and look for ways to improve their quality of life and avert a health crisis.”

Sackett knows that there will be challenges ahead, that the hospital is bigger than him, and that the work of the hospital is bigger than any one person. “You couldn’t build what we have here in just five years. I want to give God recognition for what’s happened here. Good things take time to grow, but can be destroyed easily.”

Being at a place for a long time means that people know both one’s personal strengths and weaknesses, he says. But on the other hand, when he talks about needing to be mission-led, they know he’s not faking it. “We really strive to live the mission.” n

Since this article was written, John Sackett was named president of Shady Grove Adventist Hospital, a 331-bed hospital in Rockville, Maryland.--Editors

DeLona Lang Bell is president of CMBell Company, which assists businesses and other organizations with communication, marketing, and branding.