MHA’s Mid-Winter Leadership Forum:
Politics, Transformation & a Tragedy that Led to Meaningful Change

Approximately 350 people attended MHA’s Mid-Winter Leadership Forum last Friday – the 53rd such gathering in MHA’s 84-year history.
Attendees were treated to a thought-provoking address from Stephen Klasko, M.D., president and CEO of Thomas Jefferson University and Jefferson Health in Philadelphia, who spoke about healthcare in the age of artificial intelligence. Massachusetts Health & Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders addressed the gathering, and two nationally recognized political figures – Democratic consultant Maryanne Marsh and Republican Ginny Buckingham, the former head of MassPort – held forth on the fractious political environment both in the Bay State and in Washington. Longtime WCVB-TV reporter Janet Wu moderated that panel.
But the most heartfelt presentation involved Boston Globe journalist Peter DeMarco, whose wife, Laura Levis, died from an asthma attack after having difficulty accessing the Somerville Hospital emergency department. He shared the stage with Assaad Sayah, M.D., the newly appointed president of Cambridge Health Alliance, which is the parent system of Somerville Hospital, and the CMO of the system since 2013.
DeMarco told the audience that he was standing on the stage with Sayah “as a partner in this endeavor, not as an opponent. You will not hear me cast blame or point fingers. Dr. Sayah and I are here together as a team to teach and share. I am grateful that he and Cambridge Health Alliance are trying very hard to see that Laura's death will have real meaning.”
Sayah added, “So many factors come into play in matters of life and death, many of which are unpredictable. This event revealed gaps we did not realize we had, and, from the moment it occurred, we have worked extremely hard to look at what happened, how it happened, and how we can do better.”
The two then followed nearly step by step the route Levis took, and how the lack of lighting, insufficient signage, and faulty communication, including an inadequate 911 response, all seemed to conspire against her and ultimately led to her death just outside the ED. Levis' death, DeMarco’s persistence in seeking answers, and CHA’s response have all led to changes throughout the state. Recognizing the importance of the issue, MHA formed an ED Access Workgroup (see story below) to create best practices around “wayfinding,” exterior signage, and staff training.
“I think the first lesson we learned from this is that you can't wait to implement security measures if there are deficiencies,” Sayah said.
Said DeMarco, “Ask yourself, what do I habitually ignore that could be important? How would this – whatever this is – look to a patient who's never been to my hospital before? How can I be proactive, not reactive? How can I encourage my staff members to think the same way? How can I learn from others' mistakes so that they don't happen here? If you and your staffs can do that, then you will truly honor my wife's memory.”