Retiring hospital administrator Brown reflects on navigating Nanticoke

Tom Brown makes the rounds in saying goodbye to staff at Nanticoke Memorial Hospital. (Submitted photo)

SEAFORD — At 66, retirement has arrived for Thomas E. Brown, whose vision was instrumental in lifting Nanticoke Memorial Hospital from troubled waters and whose leadership and guidance spearheaded significant growth of the Nanticoke Physician Network.

After 19 years with Nanticoke’s health care family, during which he wore many hats with multiple titles, Mr. Brown’s last official day was Wednesday.

“It won’t be the same without him, that’s for sure,” said Penny Short, Nanticoke Memorial Hospital president. “His office was next to mine. Every morning, we’d talk about work, life and everything … and I am certainly going to miss that.”

Mr. Brown’s career with then-Nanticoke Health Services began in May of 2001, first as vice president of the Nanticoke Foundation from 2001 to 2008, charged with building Nanticoke’s brand and local support through a deep connection to the community.

His role quickly expanded. Mr. Brown became senior vice president for Nanticoke Health Services, serving from 2008 to 2020. He subsequently served as the president of the Nanticoke Physician Network for several years until his retirement.

Mr. Brown came to Western Sussex County from a much larger health care system in metro Baltimore, Mercy Medical Center, where he worked for 14 years. That followed 11 years as a teacher/administrator at a private boys’ high school in Baltimore.

Small-town life

“I was kind of itching for a change, a change of scenery, both in work and personally,” said Mr. Brown. “So, we decided we wanted to live in a small town and work in a small town.”

Thomas E. Brown

“The main difference is that everything you do in a small community hospital — and it is also true for the community at large — is it is more personal. It is more relationship driven. Your ability to effect change and try new things is enhanced because of the agility of a smaller place,” said Mr. Brown. “That is what I wanted to experience and that is exactly what I did experience. I really felt way more connected to my work and to the people I worked with, and especially to the care when I came to Nanticoke.”

“Of course, the downside with a small community hospital is first of all it’s at a disadvantage because of the state of health care and struggles with smaller hospitals, in meeting all the demands of all the care for a wide population of people, some of which have tremendous needs, and limited resources small hospitals have,” said Mr. Brown.

Righting the ship

One of Mr. Brown’s crowning achievements at Nanticoke was leading the growth of the Nanticoke Physician Network, from five providers to more than 60.

Steve Rose, who retired as Nanticoke’s CEO/president this past January, came to Nanticoke in 2008 as the healthcare system was experiencing difficulties.

“We were bankrupt. Let’s call it was it is,” said Mr. Rose. “It wasn’t just financial troubles. We had no money.”

“When I got there, Tom (Brown) and Penny (Short) were already there. I realized that both of them had a lot more skills and talents than they were using. Tom was head of the foundation and marketing. He is a super smart guy and I realized that his talents were wasted. So, I asked him about taking over the physician part,” Mr. Rose said.

“Our business plan basically was two-pronged. One was to recruit more physicians. I told the board that the only way to make money in a hospital was to fill the beds, and the only way to fill the beds was to have physicians. They are the ones who fill the beds. And, we had to have better quality.”

“And Penny Short … I asked her to take over the quality initiatives, which she did,” said Mr. Rose. “Tom was sort of the idea guy. We always teased him. Tom used to come into my office, and he’d say, ‘Here is a crazy idea. What if we do this … or do that?’ And they all paid off. He had great ideas, great vision. Some of them were fairly risky, but they were good. Tom really helped us grow that physician network and it is what it is today because of Tom.”

Tom Brown, back center, with members of the Nanticoke Physician Network. (Submitted photo)

“As a hospital you can’t flourish without physicians,” Ms. Short said. “We really have to spend some money to … flourish as a hospital. That is when there were beginning thoughts about a physician network. We employed like five physicians at the time, and to date now we are up to about 60 providers. So, it was growing the physician base, both in the primary care but also in specialty care that we’re able to provide. That is really what helped turn the ship around. Tom was key in getting people here to be part of that.”

“Tom always said, ‘Physicians don’t come out of medical school saying, ‘Oh, I want to go to Seaford, Delaware to practice medicine,’” said Ms. Short. “But if Tom could get them here, he really could show them what a great gem Nanticoke was, and what this community had to offer. Once he got them here, he recruited a lot of great physicians. I think that was key to our success over the years.”

Mr. Brown recalls Nanticoke’s rebound after “the wheels fell off.”

“With Steve Rose’s ascension to the president of the hospital; as Penny came into her role many of those clinical operations went to her, and I focused on the physician network, marketing, facility management …,” said Mr. Brown, who chuckles when he says, “teaching teenage high school boys prepared me for everything I ever needed to know about managing physicians.”

As a part of his work within the network, Mr. Brown led the expansion of provider facilities to include practice locations in Seaford, Bridgeville, Laurel, Georgetown, Delmar and Federalsburg, Maryland.

He is quick to pass credit and share accolades.

“The thought was, ‘Let’s have an integrated system that is coordinated, that aspires to be high quality and can measure its quality.’ Those are the things we did early on,” said Mr. Brown. “And I was very fortunate to have a terrific team …. to take all my ramblings and musings of what we ought to do and actually turn them into action plans and get it done.”

In his role as the senior leader for Facilities Management, Mr. Brown’s team worked to build and open a two-story medical office building at the Mears Health Campus, which today stands as the Nanticoke Health Pavilion Seaford. He also mentored the group as they expanded the network to include several walk-in or immediate care locations around Sussex County.

“Tom came here and really, when he first started, it was his work on the foundation and connecting the community with the organization. One of his strengths really is about building relationships. I think that right from the start he was able to build long-lasting relationships in the community and really start to have the community see the hospital more as a partner and see us in a different lens than they had before,” said Ms. Short.

“That was a huge stepping stone for us as an organization where he first came here. It didn’t take long really for everybody to know that he had even more talents than that, that he could really play a pivotal role in the growth that Nanticoke needed. He moved into the physician recruitment relations and excelled in that. I don’t know what we would have done without him in that role.”

Ups and downs

With Nanticoke, Mr. Brown experienced the ups and downs of a small community hospital.

At one point, Nanticoke lost its team of orthopedic surgeons. In turn, the hospital temporarily lost its Level Three trauma center status.

“That is beyond the fact that it is … embarrassing,” said Mr. Brown. “That is the part that was really much more challenging and upsetting. If I was in Baltimore and something like that happened … there are five other hospitals within a couple hundred yards, two of which are world-class hospitals like (Johns) Hopkins and the University of Maryland …”

“Now, the reverse of that is when you were successful in bringing resources to the community, bringing new physicians, new services it just felt so good. It felt so good to have someone have a cardiac stent right here at Nanticoke and not have to be rushed somewhere else with a heart attack,” said Mr. Brown.

Tom Brown, at far right, at the ceremonial “groundbreaking” held in September 2014 at the Mears Health Campus for the Nanticoke Health Pavilion Seaford

“To be honest, one of the reasons that I came was that I could explore other things. In a large system you learn to do one thing and you learn to do it very well. Sometimes you wonder what everyone else is doing. I had tremendous career opportunity in those 19 years, born out of necessity and sometimes turmoil but nonetheless it was a great opportunity.”

Committed to community

In retirement, Mr. Brown is now living closer to the beach he loves with the woman he loves, his wife Joanna.

Mr. Brown has a daughter, Annie, who resides in Annapolis, Maryland with her husband Colin.

Through his service to others, Mr. Brown continually brings honor to his first wife Pegeen and daughter Samantha, both of whom passed away in 2007.

Mr. Brown has devoted countless hours in service to his community, including the Nanticoke Rotary Club, Seaford Chamber of Commerce and Delaware Hospice, serving in leadership roles in each of these organizations.

He is the recipient of many awards and honors, including the American Hospital Association Grassroots Champion Award. Mr. Brown has also had a commitment to community youth, providing mentorship and support where needed, and was the recipient of the National Boys Scout 2015 Sussex Distinguished Citizen Award.

While he now resides on the eastern side of the county, Bethany Beach/Ocean View, he feels he remains part of the community.

“I wouldn’t leave this community,” said Mr. Brown. “I have a great affection for Western Sussex and for Seaford. I love Delaware and I love Sussex County. I owe a great, great debt to Western Sussex County and to Nanticoke and Seaford.”

Ms. Short said there will be a noticeable void in the administrative hub at Nanticoke Memorial, now part of Peninsula Regional Health System.

“I had him as a co-worker, but I could also call him my friend. That part is going to be hard,” said Ms. Short. “But we are now a part of a system, Peninsula Regional Health System. The physician network will now be a larger physicians’ network and it will cross two states.”

In his final months at work, Mr. Brown worked with the network team “to make sure we have a great transition and a great handoff,” said Ms. Short. “We’re very fortunate we had him here to work with the new team.”

“Tom is a super smart guy. He is very well read, very philosophical, and I think that really helped to contribute to the way he was able to put ideas together and execute them, and make them get a return on our plan,” said Mr. Rose. “I am indebted to him for all that he did to help Nanticoke.”