SCOTTSDALE, Ariz.—Dr. Jeffrey Cohen is typically one to shy away from praise, but to many of his colleagues gathered in Scottsdale for Project Japan’s Leadership Symposium, he is a hero.
The president of Allegheny General Hospital in Pittsburgh became the face of humanity and healing in the aftermath of the mass shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue that left 11 dead last fall.
A member of and neighbor to the congregation—he lives across the street—Cohen led his organization through the tragedy, including creating an environment that enabled Jewish staff members to treat a shooter who espoused killing all Jews.
“You have accepted this group’s standing ovations, but you need to accept our love and caring as well,” Dr. Rhonda Medows, president of population health management at Providence St. Joseph Health and CEO of Ayin Health Solutions, told Cohen immediately after his closing keynote. “You need to understand that even though you may not want the mantle of being a hero, you are to us.”
Cohen didn’t dwell on the shooting in his remarks, rather he reinforced themes from the 1½-day conference—resilience, empathy, collaboration, culture, courage and continuity. Project Japan leaders expressed the importance of transparency, integrity and cooperation between former competitors amid adversity and disruption. They explored how to maintain a balance between margin and mission. They looked at the shifting political and reimbursement landscape and how new partnerships can help them weather those changes. Leaders also discussed how to deploy resources more effectively to stem diseases and how to imbue staff with the power to spearhead that change.
But Allegheny General’s experience that day transcended healthcare. Unfortunately, it is one that more communities have to deal with on a regular basis. The weight of these devastating attacks is often too much to manage. Without the support of others, it would be unbearable, leaders said.
Cohen talked to the shooter after his treatment and “looked evil straight in the eye,” he said. The shooter did it because he felt threatened. He was alone and disenfranchised. He had lost his job and heeded others’ fear-mongering, Cohen said.
“I can’t do anything about the 11 people who died, but I can try to understand how we got there. And in that is the essence of healthcare,” he said, adding that the drivers behind the act are much more fundamental than gun rights.
A hospital can develop a disaster response strategy, but the physical and emotional toll is unimaginable, he said. “The calling that we have to do the right thing is what helped us get through this and that was the leadership we needed.”
But it can be lonely atop a healthcare organization when controversy or disaster strikes, said Carilion Clinic CEO Nancy Howell Agee. “We need connections with each other,” she said.
After Medows’ comments, Pamela Sutton-Wallace asked Cohen for his guidance. The CEO of the University of Virginia Health System, which grappled with the aftermath of the 2017 white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, asked how to properly address the deep-seated racism grounded in someone’s values.
“It starts with a conversation,” Cohen said. “I don’t pick sides, I am the moderator. Whatever they believe, you have to listen—at least understand how they got there. If you promote a very open environment, the people in the hospital will recognize.”
After the Tree of Life tragedy, Orlando (Fla.) Regional Medical Center, which cared for victims of the Pulse nightclub shooting in 2016, sent a banner that sits in Allegheny General Hospital’s lobby that reads, “Our hearts are with you.”
“The healthcare community is the light,” Cohen said. “They didn’t let the events defile them and did the right thing. The outpouring of support from around the world was breathtaking. There are a lot more good people in the world than bad people.”