Dr. Robert Heyssel, former CEO of Hopkins, dies at 72

He guided hospital during turbulent years

June 14, 2001|By Joe Nawrozki | Joe Nawrozki,SUN STAFF

Dr. Robert M. Heyssel, former president of Johns Hopkins Hospital and chief architect of the institution's emergence as a diversified health care delivery system, died yesterday of lung cancer at Nanticoke Memorial Hospital in Seaford, Del., where he lived. He was 72.

From 1972 until his retirement in 1992, Dr. Heyssel served as hospital president and chief executive officer of Johns Hopkins Health System, where he earned a reputation as one of the nation's top health-service executives.

Dr. Heyssel guided Hopkins through two decades of explosive changes in academic medicine, expanded the hospital's East Baltimore campus and forged partnerships with corporations and east-side communities.

"He was that rare physician who understood not only the big picture and practice of modern medicine and the forces that influence it, but also dealt firmly with the ups and downs of day-to-day management of a complex institution," said Ronald R. Peterson, president of Johns Hopkins Health System and Hopkins Hospital.

To Dr. Robert Blendon, a Harvard professor who met Dr. Heyssel at Hopkins in 1969 while a young assistant professor, the former president "was truly a giant in American medicine, and he brought dignity to the poor ... who sought treatment at the Hopkins emergency room."

Dr. Blendon remembered Dr. Heyssel as "tall and large, a very imposing man with a very strong personality. He was not afraid to take unpopular stands because he was always secure in his compassion and cause."

In his years at Hopkins, Dr. Heyssel established a solid reputation for acting on soaring health care costs, government and industry controls of medical care and concern for the care of the aging. A Hopkins press release said that in dozens of published papers and prepared speeches, he addressed issues of quality assurance, decentralized management, the disadvantages of for-profit hospitals and the impact of health care competition on research and medical education.

Dr. Heyssel came to Hopkins in 1968 as associate dean of the medical school and director of outpatient services. He was named executive vice president and director in 1972, president in 1982, and president and CEO of the Health System in 1986.

When he retired, his legacy included two major phases of physical redevelopment, including Hopkins' first Oncology Center, the Nelson Patient Tower, the Clayton Heart Center and the Johns Hopkins Outpatient Center, whose main building bears his name.

His other accomplishments included keeping Hopkins financially solvent when urban hospitals struggled to stay afloat and instituting a decentralized approach to administration that was used as a case study at the Harvard Business School for many years.

In the early 1970s, Dr. Heyssel was part of a Hopkins group that launched the Columbia Medical Plan and the East Baltimore Medical Plan -- two of the earliest health plans in the region -- and the Johns Hopkins Health System and the Johns Hopkins Health Plan. He created the Johns Hopkins Medical Services Corp. to retain control of the provider side of the enterprise when the plan was sold.

Dr. Heyssel also crafted the acquisition of the failing Baltimore City Hospitals, expanding it into the centerpiece of the Hopkins Bayview campus, home to several specialty health and research centers and two branches of the federal National Institutes of Health.

Born in Jamestown, Mo., he attended the University of Missouri and graduated from the St. Louis University School of Medicine in 1953. He came to Hopkins from Vanderbilt University, where he held faculty appointments in hematology and nuclear medicine.

His interest in public health was traced to his medical school studies and a stint in the U.S. Public Health Service, where he studied the effects of radiation in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, sites in Japan of two atomic bomb detonations during World War II.

Outside of medicine, Dr. Heyssel worked closely with East Baltimore residents on affordable housing projects and helped bankroll a Community Health Initiative guided by community leaders.

At his retirement, he laid out his blueprint for Hopkins to continue as one of the world's premier medical institutions.

The health problems of the 21st century, he said, are heart disease, cancer, substance abuse, AIDS, Alzheimer's disease and those of the aging. He called them "tough problems all. ... Their solution lies in our old ingredients of success: the best people in modern facilities focusing on care and compassion for patients and dissatisfaction with what is.

"That," he continued in his farewell, "is what we are about, will be about, in the next century."

Services will be held at 11 a.m. tomorrow at Our Lady of Lourdes Roman Catholic Church, 532 Stein Highway, Seaford. A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. Saturday in Hurd Hall, Johns Hopkins Hospital, 600 N. Wolfe St.

Dr. Heyssel is survived by his wife, Maria Heyssel of Seaford; three sons, James Heyssel of Cooksville, Robert M. Heyssel of Huntington, N.Y., and Kurt Heyssel of Lutherville; two daughters, Lisa Heyssel Flexner of Ellicott City and Peri Glaser of Wiener Neustadt, Austria; a sister, Mary Bumgarner of Columbia, Mo.; and nine grandchildren.

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