I remember the first day at the hospital, I saw this boy from Canada who had a rare disease . . . and yet he was like a ray of sunshine. He would drag himself up and down the hall, stop in everyone’s room and talk to them. He refused to feel sorry for himself.
He ultimately passed away a year later, but his life really helped me put things in perspective.
There was another kid in the unit who had very profound burns. He was wrapped head-to-toe in bandages. We became friends with him and would take turns wheeling him around the hospital.
I think those early experiences really impacted the way I view the true role of a hospital.
A hospital makes an impact on the patient from the moment they drive into the parking lot. You want to have staff that want to be there and are service-focused.
It’s a privilege to work in that environment every day. It has really drilled home what it means to be a servant leader.
Growing up, I always wanted to do something in health care, but I also worked with my dad in construction and I enjoyed that. Those two interests set me on a very nontraditional path, which turned out being an odd mixture of health care and construction.
The thing I liked about both is that at the end of the day, there’s a very tangible impact.
During my undergrad and graduate school, I ran a residential construction company to help pay the bills. I went to graduate school in Cambridge and still ran the business.
I decided along the way that after I was done with graduate school, I didn’t want to live on soft money and purely do research.
I continued construction and enrolled in the doctoral program at the School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University.
I learned good time management. I was running a construction company in D.C. but had to be in class at 8 a.m. in Baltimore. So I would go to the job at 6 a.m. and get the subcontractors started. Then I would drive to Baltimore and call the suppliers on my big, boxy cellphone. After class, I would return to the jobs in the afternoon, meet with the clients and contractors, and study at night.
Those business leadership skills proved very translatable to the health-care industry.
The first job I received after graduate school was a front-line manager job at Johns Hopkins Hospital. I learned how to value the front line. To this day, if I have a question or want input, I tend to go directly to the front lines. The Japanese call it going to the gemba floor. There’s tremendous value in that.
I had always wanted to be the president of a hospital. When the opportunity at Sibley Memorial Hospital came up, I applied.
One of the things that was very attractive to me was the culture.
I believe there’s a lot of opportunity for innovations.
Although I had a nontraditional path, I think every experience was very important along the way.
— Interview with Vanessa Small