Editor's Note: Founded in 1919, this year marks the 100th anniversary for South County Health. As part of our community outreach efforts, The Independent has partnered with the organization on a series of stories related to the history and mission of South County Health. They will run periodically in our newspapers this year and will appear online on our website at IndependentRI.com.
The story of Donald L. Ford’s arrival at South County Hospital on Sept. 2, 1958, has become the stuff of legend. There he was in the front parking lot, wearing a green jacket and straw boater that befit his roguish Irish wit. Seeing this stranger emerge out of an Edsel was too much for the staff watching from the operating room.
Barbara Hackey, the OR nurse not known for mincing words, said, “I give him three months.”
Dr. John Walsh, chief of surgery, concurred.
Ford loved to tell that story, and he told it often, but it was not apocryphal – Walsh confirmed it years later in an oral history, and Hackey, too, delighted in reminding people how wrong she’d been about the former Alexian brother from a Philadelphia hospital who would turn out to be South County Hospital’s longest-tenured CEO. She claimed, however, she’d given him six months.
Many ingredients would lead to Ford’s success. First and foremost was his character, a mix of bluster and shrewd intellect that people underestimated at their peril. Dr. Eugene McKee came closest to nailing it, in his memoir, “Bloodletting to Binary”: “I always sensed a wariness, an appraising look in his eyes that accompanied his ready smile,” McKee wrote. “He was on the lookout, it seemed, for a hidden agenda, as though he had been outsmarted once or twice and was not about to let it happen again.”
Ford was a stickler for quality, and he paid attention to the tiniest detail. He regularly toured the hospital, an inspection that started on the very first day, according to Rudi Hempe, a former member of the Board of Trustees.
“He went into one of the rooms and there was a curtain rod hanging down … he raised holy hell over that,” Hempe said. “Because he said the patient … he’s going to interpret that no one really cares.”
Dr. Timothy Drury, who worked in the ER from 1978 to 2016, recalled similar incidents. “He was very safety conscious,” he said. “He would walk down the hall and, if he saw one of the stretchers with the wheel coming out … he would go crazy and have people put it back. He walked the halls a lot. He was approachable.”
Modesty may not have been one of Ford’s strongest characteristics, but he was the first to admit he thrived by surrounding himself with highly competent people. “I knew my limitations,” he said in an oral history.
One of those was in finance, so he recruited Robert Menard, who audited Blue Cross Blue Shield, to join the hospital. It took several offers before Menard accepted, in 1965. They would prove a formidable team. He hired Edna Otto to head the nursing staff, which he knew was a key position, in 1962, and four years later named Ralph Misto to run the laboratory.
Ford acknowledged he had a rocky start with the medical staff, who perhaps had enjoyed more independence under his predecessors. Within a year they were voting on his ouster. But he survived that vote and went on to win their confidence.
“His devotion was first to the patient,” said Dr. Joseph O’Neill, who joined the staff in 1965 as its first board-certified obstetrician. “He dealt with us [doctors] professionally, but we always knew at the end of the conversation what the focus was – the patient.”
But perhaps the most visible sign of Ford’s legacy was the building itself. In 1958, the hospital was more than 30 years old and starting to show it.
In an essay published in 2006 in the South County Independent, Ford credited the Board of Trustees of the mid-1950s with realizing “the hospital could no longer vegetate at the end of Kenyon Avenue, it had either to be made into a good community hospital or completely closed.”
In addition to Ford, the trustees had hired a consultant to assess the physical plant, which included the Hazard Memorial Wing and a small laundry addition constructed in 1952. The firm, Shepley Bulfinch Richardson & Abbott of Boston, pulled no punches in its report, released the same month as Ford’s hiring. The firm was critical of the hospital’s operating rooms, overall size, ventilation systems, and inadequate on-site sewer disposal system. They did, however, note the cafeteria’s “excellent food” with the caveat that the kitchen operated from “rather cramped quarters with equipment that is becoming old.”
Perhaps Dr. Walsh and Nurse Hackey were skeptical of their new leader, but after reading that report, could they have blamed him if he did pack up and return to Philadelphia? But Ford, with his cautious optimism, dug in. He had the support of the Trustees, a plan to deal with the hospital’s deficiencies, and years of experience in administration.
The consultants recommended eventual expansion from 67 beds to 150. Taking advantage of the Hill-Burton Act, federal legislation that allowed for reimbursement of hospital construction, the Trustees authorized a more modest project. On Oct. 28, 1962, work was completed. The addition increased hospital beds to 75, plus 15 bassinets for babies; expanded the operating room, laboratory, and central supply; and included a new heating plant. Five years later, the cafeteria would be modernized.
It was the beginning of a long period of expansion. The Borda Wing, created to deal with new federal reimbursement rules under Medicare, opened in 1970. In 1978, work began on a new ER, clinical lab, and diagnostic imaging facilities. In 1980, ground was broken for the south (Read I) addition.
Under Ford’s leadership, the hospital met the challenges of a growing community. In 1962, the hospital admitted 2,065 people, conducted 634 operations, and saw 2,199 people in the ER. By 1985, Ford’s last full year as president, the hospital admitted 4,678 people, conducted 3,083 operations and saw 18,980 people in the ER. The modern era had arrived.
When people remember Don Ford, though, they don’t talk about admission stats or additions. They recall the man – who could be both irreverent and professional, humorous and no-nonsense.
They remember him dressing up in costume for themed cafeteria days, or doling out food during emergencies, such as hurricanes and blizzards.
“It was a community hospital. If a hurricane came I’d give Don a call and he’d say, ‘Anything you need, you’ve got,’” recalled Stephen A. Alfred, town manager in South Kingstown from 1976 to 2017.
“He was a unique personality. He knew everyone, that’s for sure,” said retired nurse Maureen Daly Blazejewski. “And he really considered South County Hospital as family.”
Sturges continues family legacy
The hospital’s board of trustees was integral to South County Hospital’s revival; many observers point to the specific contributions of longtime hospital advocate Benjamin R. Sturges. He was on the board when Ford was hired, and still going strong when Ford retired.
Born in 1908, he was the son of Rush Sturges and Elizabeth Hazard, Caroline Hazard’s niece, making him her grand-nephew. For decades he maintained the family’s dedication to the hospital as a trustee, a role he served as a Yankee gentleman whose values included thrift, civility, and, surprisingly, innovation.
South County Hospital was “the love of his life,” Hempe wrote in a tribute to Sturges upon his death in 1997. Hempe, who served with Sturges on the board for 18 years, added, “His ability to generate new ideas, to come up with solutions, to negotiate touchy matters was phenomenal.”
Among the more offbeat projects Sturges was involved in was a quest to drill through the hospital parking lot in search of geothermal energy. Ford joked about this in an oral history made after Sturges’s death. He was probably also involved in a solar energy experiment the hospital undertook with what was then Narragansett Electric in 1975.
Sturges was constantly scouting ways to save or make money, and when the Borda family bequest to the hospital became tied up in property they owned in Puerto Rico, he wrote letters to some high-rolling friends, asking if they might be interested in a sugar plantation.
Ford worked closely with Sturges, who wrote the hospital president frequent notes and called him every Friday afternoon to check up on things. Sturges kept Ford, who after all was an outsider, in touch with the community’s values. Ford, in turn, clearly respected his opinion. The main hospital was renamed the Sturges Building in his honor.