Mount Vernon District Supervisor Gerald Hyland dropped the initial public bombshell at his annual Town Meeting. "There have been rumors circulating that Inova Mount Vernon Hospital may close," he told the audience in Mount Vernon High School's Little Theater that cold, dreary morning in January 2003.
The presumption touched off a community versus corporate firestorm that sent out political solar flares for the next 22 months. Inova Health System named a task force to analyze and evaluate the hospital's financial status.
Another group, known as the Citizens Alliance Rescue Effort, was formed by Hyland as a counterweight to Inova's Southeast Health Planning Task Force, which was perceived by some to be a screen for a predetermined conclusion by Inova Health System to either close the hospital or severely limit its mission.
Accusations flew back and forth. Tempers flared.
At the center stood one individual who remained focused and unflappable — often to the frustration of both warring camps.
That person was Inova Mount Vernon Hospital's administrator and Inova Health System vice president Susan Herbert. Last week she ended her eight-year tenure in those roles, leaving the previously embattled hospital on the road to recovery.
"The hospital is still in a recovery phase. It's always been about volume. But, the right volume. You don't get smug here. We serve both the most and least affluent everyday," Herbert said.
"Mount Vernon hospital is kind of sitting in the sunshine right now. But, we can't lose the momentum. We have a lean staff with a real willingness to do the job right," she said.
Susan Herbert, a former Catholic nun, English and biology teacher, responsible for the high school yearbook, choral group and basketball team came to Inova Mount Vernon Hospital in March 1997 from the Newton Memorial Hospital in Newark, N.J., where she served as the chief operations officer.
"I came here because I got a call from Inova. They said I'd be perfect for the job. I arrived within days of when Alexandria Hospital became part of Inova Health System," Herbert said.
"I fell in love with this place the first time I walked through it. It is focused on the patients," she said.
HERBERT'S FOCUS on the human element came from the intermingling of privilege and discipline. A child of affluence, she was born and raised in New York's borough of Manhattan. Her father was a patent attorney.
She attended Marymount School for Girls, at 84th and Fifth Avenue, where her graduating class totaled 26. She attended Newton College in Boston and received her bachelor's degree from Marymount College in Taneytown, N.Y. After completing her undergraduate studies she made a seven-year commitment to the convent.
Herbert also holds a degree in English education. "I taught English and biology at the Academy of The Sacred Heart in New York City. My teaching years were energizing and rewarding," she said. "I am still in love with words and their meaning."
Her innovative techniques stem from those early teaching years. She would play her guitar in the classroom to get the students interested in subject matter to which they seemed to have little inclination. "The principal would question the methodology but I'd tell him they are learning and that was that," she said.
"I left the convent for a year after a series of catastrophic illnesses in the family. It was that experience that led me to nursing," Herbert said.
A YEAR AFTER she left the convent she met her husband Allen, a civil engineer. "We had a couple of kids in rapid-fire order. I loved my kids but I couldn't take suburbia. I wanted to get back to work," she said.
"My goal was to get out of the house and hear someone call me something other than 'Mom.' So I enrolled in nursing school in Morris County, N.J. I went part time and finished in two years," Herbert said.
Her first job was in critical care nursing at St. Clair's Hospital in Denville, N.J. "It was the night shift and part time. That way I could still take care of my family during the day — get the children off to school and be there when they got home," she said.
"Having seen my mother and sister both become ill, I saw the best and worst of what you can be faced with in health care. I thought this would be a good career — to be of value in life and still be a good mother," she said.
She became director of the critical care unit, then a teacher of how to deal with people suffering from chronic illnesses. When her children were older she began working the day-shift which enabled her to get her graduate degree in Health Care Education and Administration at Rutgers University.
That led her to University Hospital in Newark, N.J., then Newton Memorial Hospital, and finally to Inova Mount Vernon Hospital. "My husband had just completed 30 years in municipal service. The kids were grown. It was a good time to move and he really encouraged me," she said.
"It's always been about a family effort with us. My husband and my children always knew it was better for me to be involved in a career. I'm a very straight-forward person." Herbert said.
THAT SELF-ASSESSMENT was verified by Hyland. "When Susan first came to this hospital, she walked into my office, introduced herself, and offered to work together on developing the hospital. I consider her a friend as well as a true professional," he said.
"She is a professional with a heart. She truly cares about everyone who comes into this hospital. A good example of that is the dramatic improvement of the emergency room operations. A three-hour wait was not unusual. Now you get service immediately. I know that personally because I'm noted for needing to visit that ER," Hyland said.
"Throughout all the challenges faced by the hospital, Susan has maintained her composure. She found herself in the middle, between the community and her employer. It was not easy. But, she [pulled] it off [with] her professionalism," he said.
"She epitomizes Mount Vernon Hospital. It is also a hospital with a heart. Every patient is made to feel they, and their family, are important," Hyland said.
His sentiments were echoed by three other Task Force members who struggled through months of doubt and recriminations between IHS and citizens. "She was very instrumental in having our negotiations work out as well as they did," said former congressman Herbert E. Harris, II, who often vehemently disagreed with Inova officials on the Task Force. "She is an extraordinarily competent person and I enjoyed working with her even though things often got testy."
Former state Sen. Joseph Gartlan characterized Herbert as "an intensely loyal person. She made that work for the betterment of everyone engaged in saving Mount Vernon Hospital."
As Task Force co-chair, Anne Andrews said, "She has been a very successful administrator that demonstrated enormous expertise in maintaining a professional demeanor under very challenging circumstances. She was a pivotal member of the Task Force who always had a wonderful personal concern for the patients through it all."
HERBERT ATTRIBUTES a great deal of her success, in being a primary player in saving the hospital, to the medical staff. "I have been supported fully by the medical staff," she said.
That was evident by the support and admiration from Dr. Cleveland Francis, cardiologist and head of the hospital's medical staff throughout the Task Force's deliberations. "Susan was just who we needed for this time. She saw the bigger picture and brought all her talents and experiences into play," he said.
"Someone had to be the spokesperson for both the community at large and the hospital. She was that. She has a great sense of appreciating things that people do," Francis said.
"She presided over the hospital during one of its most contentious periods. If anything the hospital looks more rosy than it has in some time. She has allowed the process to go forward," said Dr. Roger Wiederhorn, urologist and member of CARE during that period.
Francis further acknowledged that Herbert "set the stage for a lot of good things that are going to happen at the hospital." Several of those are already underway.
The Wound Center has been restructured and enlarged. Two new surgeons are on board. And, a new optical facility was recently dedicated.
"We have reshuffled beds and increased our usable capacity. We grew the rehabilitation and joint replacement programs and psychiatric services," Herbert said.
In 2003, IMVH served 853 rehabilitation patients. In 2004, that jumped to 1021, according to Herbert. The hospital is now the regional provider of psychiatric services with 30 beds.
"When the crisis broke we had lost $7.4 million. Then it dropped to $4.2 million. Last year we were down about $1.4 million. Now we are back in the break-even area and, hopefully, this year we will show a plus," Herbert said.
One of the recurring complaints throughout the fiscal crisis was that the closing of Woodlawn Road was making it difficult for patients to reach the hospital and they were going elsewhere. When asked how the turn-around occurred with the road still closed, Herbert explained that she changed how she evaluated the situation.
"I realized there was nothing I could do about Woodlawn Road so we began to concentrate on what we had to offer on a regional basis. Things not impacted by Woodlawn Road. It was our many services and specialties such as the Rehabilitation Center, joint replacement expertise and psychiatric care," she said.
In the past year rehabilitation activities have increased 20 percent and joint replacement is up 12 percent, according to Herbert. "That has made all the difference. Now we are going to have the new Healthplex as well as other increased services and capabilities," she said.
But, she feels now is also the right time for her to move on. "I am going to take some time and relax. Allen and I intend to enjoy the summer and maybe travel some. He is recovering from heart surgery. But, we are residents of the area and intend to remain so," she said.
Their son Garrett, 34, lives in the East Village in New York City. Their daughter Rachel, 33, is right next door in Lorton.
In the long run, Herbert wants "to be open to what ever might come along. I've always been game for new things. People are wonderful and I've always tried to give more than I take."