Before the end of the current year, Ken Feiler will step down after 21 years as president-CEO of Rose Medical Center. At least three testimonial dinners will take place to commemorate his long service to the hospital and the Denver Jewish community that created it.
No doubt, glasses will be raised and flattering things said, but few of those toasts and compliments are likely to exceed some of the things his colleagues have already written in letters triggered by the recent announcement of his resignation.
A small sampling of them includes such snippets as:
- “fearlessly sharing your heart”
- “personal investment”
- “respected mentor”
- “I am grateful for you”
The personal plaudits mean a great deal to Feiler, he admitted in an interview last month with the Intermountain Jewish News. While he is proud to have successfully led Rose Medical Center through its transition from an independent institution, founded and largely supported by the Jewish community, into a part of a huge national health care network, he seems prouder still that he was able to form close and lasting bonds with individual human beings.
“Blessed” is a word he used repeatedly to describe his feelings about his two-plus decades at Rose. A New York native (and lifelong Yankees fan even though he grew up in the “holy land” of Brooklyn), Feiler assumed the top job at Rose on Jan. 1, 1997, after a career in hospital administration spent mostly in South Florida.
He came here less than two years after the hospital was sold to the Columbia/HCA hospital chain, a move that received far less than unanimous approval from the hospital’s own medical and administrative staffs, not to mention the Denver Jewish community.
His work cut out for him, Feiler strove to keep the peace within the hospital while he and his wife Sheryl involved themselves deeply in local Jewish community organizations, hoping to keep alive the umbilical relationship between the Jewish community and the hospital.
How Feiler managed to succeed in both endeavors, even while expanding and improving RMC’s place in Denver’s health care marketplace, is the subject of the interview below.
Feiler discusses both the high and low points of his tenure at Rose, compares the institution in 1997 to what it has become today, and some of the unexpected twists and turns of his career, quoting the Grateful Dead song to acknowledge, “What a long strange trip it’s been.”
Describe the atmosphere at the hospital in 1997 when you took the helm at Rose.
The leadership shared with me what a wonderful place and a community jewel Rose was, but when I came in it was, oh my G-d, what did I get myself into? The medical staff was very upset and disappointed. The employees were very distraught over the changes. I think the community was heartbroken over what was happening.
Really, the place was dirty and disappointed and concerned whether the hospital was going to continue or not. Would it still be relevant? Would it still exist? So it was a bit of a shock for me. On top of all that, they wondered who did they bring in, where did he come from — a Floridian and a New Yorker who doesn’t know who we are? It was a very chaotic and difficult time.
How did you reassure the people inside the hospital and the patient population?
I shared with them that it was my vision that I would create a great relationship with the doctors. We were going to make this a special place for the employees. We were going to provide incredible health care and we were going to relate to the community the way I imagined.
I really worked on that. I spent a lot of time with the medical staff and got very involved with the medical staff leadership. I really obsessed about patient care. I hired somebody to be a concierge on the floor and we visited every single patient every single day.
With the employees I worked around the clock to make sure that they felt as though this was their place. And I went to every Jewish organization in town and met with the board of directors. I joined a whole lot of those boards. I got very involved in philanthropy in this community.
It was a blessing for me. I feel blessed that I was given that opportunity to participate and be part of the community. In those days there were people who were disappointed with what happened to Rose. I remember that I created billboards with pictures of important physician leaders at Rose. They said, “It’s still my Rose.” I had badges that said, “It’s still my Rose.” I put ads in all the newspapers that said, “It’s still my Rose.” I had a picture of Dr. Stuart Gottesfeld on Colorado Blvd. He’s still on our advisory board.
I think I lived up to that as being my vision and inviting people to join me. A lot of those people are still here with me. I feel really blessed that they’ve come along on the journey with me.
How did the Jewish community here receive you and this idea of a new Rose?
I think they were nervous and anxious, distraught. They weren’t really sure who I was, what I was, what I was committed to, what was my commitment to these relationships. I can think back to going to Shalom Park, the JCC, the ADL, the Rose Foundation, meeting with them. Some of them said, “we’ll see what you have in mind and we’ll make the decisions later.”
They were an amazing group of people. I have to say that being part of this community and being given the opportunity to join this community was one of the most wonderful relationships I could have ever imagined.
In the nearly 21 years you’ve been here there’s been an absolute upheaval in health care, which is still going on today. Has all that uncertainty contributed to your decision to leave?
Absolutely not. I ascribed it to one of the rabbis as Ecclesiastes, that there’s a time and place. I love Rose and hope to be afflliated with it in one way or another forever. What makes Rose unique is that the relationships between the medical staff, the patients, the employees, the
community have made this special. So despite the fact that we’re going through so much change, most of our physicians only go to Rose.
I don’t think you could find that in any other hospital in this community. I want to make sure that this place continues to be what it is and what it can be.
Things are changing for the whole medical community . . . but I think we have such an advantage because we have a team that is so committed to this place.
What’s such an asset for Rose is that if you need health care, I’m comfortable saying that this place is good enough for me and my mom and my dad. They can provide excellent care for you as well.
That’s what makes us special. I don’t think the doctors look at this as a job but as a relationship that continues in perpetuity. Rose has been recognized as a Top 100 hospital for the last 10 years. I mean, there’s only 100 hospitals that can be in that list. The data and statistics really prove that out. We believe in caring for people as if they were our family.
On health care nationally, are you optimistic that we’re going to figure this out?
I think it’s frightening, what’s happening. A lot of health care is changing for the better, the ability to reduce infections and understand the opioid crisis and things like that. But I think physicians are having a rough time. It’s so noble what they’re doing, but it’s a difficult profession. They’re under such pressure with managed care and expectations that it’s a lot more difficult than it should be.
My parents are now facing greater health care challenges. They live in New York and I wish I could fly them to Rose and take care of them here. Denver is blessed with great health care. With other parts of the system, I think it’s serious. We need some great leaders to help us.
Could you compare the Rose Medical Center of 1997 to the Rose Medical Center of 2017?
We have great expectations of Rose today. We’re doing a great job with the whole process of utilization of technology and pharmaceuticals, with the way our nurses care for and teach the patients, with surgery and equipment.
The reality is 10 years ago, in the old Rose, when you came in for a gall bladder removal you were in the hospital for 10 days and you had a drain. We can do a gall bladder as an outpatient now.
When I came to Rose, the length of stay for hip and knee replacement was eight days; it’s less than a day and a half now.
Today, we meet every Tuesday and go over the patient satisfaction scores. We’re in the 92nd percentile in the nation for patient satisfaction.
While that’s incredible, it also means that 8% are saying that we’re not excellent, so what do we have to do?
When it comes to infections, things have changed dramatically for the better. We’re obsessed with the whole idea of people being afraid of going to the hospital because of what they might get. We have new equipment for cleaning the rooms.
We’re heartbroken when somebody says the food isn’t good because it’s hospital food. I have a chef from one of the best restaurants in town who teaches the staff. We take that very seriously.
What is the accomplishment of which you are most proud?
So many of my employees have told me things like, “I’ve learned what it’s like to give, I’ve learned what it’s like to relate to other people, I’ve learned what it’s like to lead and as a result I could have an impact on people.” It takes my breath away.
I am the son of a man who owned a fruit store in Brooklyn.
What has been the most difficult thing that you’ve had to deal with?
We had an incident where a woman absconded with drugs and infected a group of people with Hep C. We could all say that it could never be as bad as what you imagine, and I would say this was dramatically worse that what I could ever have imagined. I took it very personally. What could I have done differently?
I worried for all those people who were affected by this. I was heartbroken. I’m heartbroken for this woman, that she destroyed her life. It was a terrible thing.
But I think the most disappointing thing is that not everybody goes home cured. I interacted with a lot of community leaders during their last days. What wonderful men and women. What could we have done? I mean, life is a journey. Sometimes, there was nothing I could do to help.
On the other hand, it takes my breath away when I’m able to walk somebody to their car and know that they’re going home and are going to live happily ever after.
Do you think you have succeeded in maintaining a relationship between the hospital and the Jewish community in Denver? Has that familial and historical bond been preserved?
I think absolutely. Going to the various events, the JCC, the ADL, the JFS, all of the leaders have spoken to me about the relationship. I put my heart and soul into participating and I think Mrs. Feiler does the same thing. We are pretty much on every one of those boards.
Another thing that is important to me is that we have a Holocaust Torah here. Years ago, Rabbi Jeff Kaye and I said that we wanted to make sure that we want one of our legacies to be that we could kosher the Torah, and say to the Nazis and all those who hated us that we won.
A few years ago, in honor of Alan Laff and the Rose family, we had the Torah koshered, rewritten and have it in our chapel.
The obvious question: Why did you decide it was time to hang up the hat?
I’ve been here for 21 years. Most hospital administrators probably go about seven years. It feels like I came yesterday. I love Rose and I love being here. But I’m getting of the age where I’d like to spend some time skiing and biking before I need hip replacement.
I’m also going to school to be an executive coach. I’ve actually created my own website. I’ve been doing a little bit of teaching at DU and a little coaching and I’m excited about the opportunity that maybe I can help a few people. I’m looking forward to that. It’s been so much fun to talk to young people.
There have been people who have mentored me and I think it’s about paying it forward. I also have to say I’m looking forward to the opportunity to relax.
Do you have a parting message for Rose Medical Center?
I felt blessed to be at Rose. It was never a job for me; it was an honor to be with the people of Rose and Denver. I think Mark Twain said that if you love what you do, it would never be a job. Every day that I’ve had the opportunity to come to Rose has been special.