The Man Who Shook Up Sheppard Pratt

July 07, 1991|By PATRICK A. MCGUIRE

Dr. Robert W. Gibson remembers well his initial meeting with the Board of Trustees at the Sheppard and Enoch Pratt Hospital. It was 1963 and he had just been promoted by the board from clinical director to medical director -- the title, in those days, of the hospital's chief executive officer.

He'd spent his whole career as a psychiatrist in public and private hospitals and was convinced that the stagnant feeling which seemed to pervade Sheppard -- "it just seemed to be going no place," is how he remembered it -- was more a product of lack of vision than anything else.

He wanted to divert the trustees from their tentative plans to sell the hospital that had been born out of the vision of Baltimore entrepreneur Moses Sheppard more than a century earlier.

To bring some Knute Rockne-like flair to his first meeting, Dr. Gibson had been studying one of Peter Drucker's management books in which he described the fatal flaws that had ruined the railroad business. They had made the colossal mistake, wrote Mr. Drucker, of believing they were in the business of running a railroad and not in the business of transportation or communications -- concepts that by their nature suggested a sympathetic understanding of their riding public.

It was just such a point Dr. Gibson hoped to make, that Sheppard needed to broaden itself and take more notice of the world around it, and especially to develop a new attitude of understanding toward the people it served.

"And so," Dr. Gibson recalls, "I said to the board at that first meeting, 'The greatest mistake we could make is to think we were in the business of running a psychiatric hospital.' "

He waited a moment as the words sunk in.

"I still remember the look of despair on their faces," he smiles. "It was as if to say, 'What have we done? Where did we get this idiot?' "

Now, almost 30 years later, the idiot is finally retiring, but with a much rehabilitated image. For it was largely the vision of Dr. Gibson that transformed Sheppard from a 19th century-style asylum into a 21st century comprehensive psychiatric hospital, nationally known and locally appreciated for its non-railroad approach to things.

Only the fourth chief executive the hospital has had since it accepted its first patient 100 years ago, Dr. Gibson will officially relinquish his title as president at the end of the year. He will be remembered for having opened Sheppard to volunteers and for establishing an outpatient department, allowing patients for the first time to come and go from hospital grounds.

Early on in his tenure, he ended the practice of custodial care, the long-term warehousing of treatment-resistant patients. Today Sheppard has a reputation for its effective treatment of the most difficult mental patients, and receives admissions from across the country.

Over the years Dr. Gibson expanded his psychiatric residency program and his medical staff. He took the hospital into the world of Employee Assistance Programs -- the counseling of employees for various businesses nationwide. The EAP program located in the hospital's new education center, a building equipped with its own TV studio and lecture hall from which Sheppard prepares programs, lectures and classes aimed at educating the public in everyday topics like depression or family stress.

When his colleagues warned him against advertising -- "Gee, don't advertise, they'll think you're in trouble," -- he put out the first annual report the hospital had published in 60 years and sent a copy to every psychiatrist in the country. "It wasn't very long before everyone knew about Sheppard Pratt," he says.

And whereas the pre-Gibson Sheppard Pratt saw very few patients under the age of 19, he began to notice that more and more young people were presenting themselves for care. He created an adolescent unit that today occupies an entire building and also has a fully equipped and accredited kindergarten through 12th grade school on the 105-acre campus. Half of its students are in-patients and other half are bused in daily.

Among his more novel accomplishments, Dr. Gibson made Sheppard the first and only private psychiatric hospital in the nation to run a public community mental health center -- operating one of Baltimore County's five centers.

"I was like a kid with a Montgomery Ward catalog," says Dr. Gibson. "I wanted to provide the broadest possible range of services to the mentally ill. Our world was wide open. It seemed like there were all kinds of things that could happen here."

THAT, ANYWAY, WAS THE hope of Moses Sheppard, the prune-faced philanthropist who turned his attention and wealth to the plight of the insane in the midst of the 19th century.

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