In the Presence of Greatness

I had already jotted down an outline for the next installment of Dr. C’s Corner when a May 15th e-mail informed me of the unexpected passing of Dr. J. William Jermyn, the state medical director for Missouri. Using the word “stunned” would be an understatement to describe my emotions, and days passed before the sense of shock began to fade. My previous thoughts for my column escaped my mind, and I decided to delve into what made Dr. Jermyn an EMS leader.

Dr. Jermyn, better known as Bill, was a gentle giant in EMS. He persevered in his mission to elevate prehospital care in his state for the sake of the citizens and EMS providers he served. This is just one of the qualities he possessed that made him a great leader. I’ve contemplated the leadership qualities of the emergency medicine and EMS leaders and have found a common thread of magic among them. Let me share my experiences with three.

Soft spoken and open minded
When I enrolled in medical school, I naively thought I wanted to be an internist. However, on my first day the dean’s office assigned me an advisor who was an emergency medicine physician deeply involved in EMS. I found my advisor, Dr. Dan Storer, was soft-spoken and an open-minded listener. As I sat in front of his cherry desk with my legs swinging over the edge of the chair like a kid in elementary school, he quietly made wonderful suggestions with a hint of a fatherly smile. Fortunately, he gently convinced me I wasn’t a suit-in-an-office kind of girl. Living life in a pair of scrubs in an unpredictably paced emergency department better suited my free-spirited personality.

Dan was one of my attending physicians when I became an emergency medicine resident at the University of Cincinnati. In this capacity, I continued to glean pearls of wisdom from him. I was amazed at his accomplishments and contributions to EMS about which he never boasted. After I completed my residency. I saw Dan primarily at conferences yet was continually amazed at how closely he followed my accomplishments.

In our last conversation before his death, which occurred after my appointment as state medical director in Ohio, he said, “I’m so proud that you are following my footsteps.” I told him I could never dream of filling his footsteps, but that I would make an attempt to continue his mission. I had known him for more than a decade but didn’t learn until after this conversation that he was one of the first state medical directors for EMS in Ohio. I was reminded of his humble nature once again.

Humble and unpretentious
I can say the same of Dr. Peter Rosen, who’s alive and well. He’s considered by many to be the founder of emergency medicine in the U.S. I first met him at an American Academy of Emergency Medicine conference. Years later, he was in attendance at an emergency medicine conference in Iceland that I attended. He was smiling when he walked up to me. He didn’t just say hello. He asked me how my career was going, inquiring about my life with honesty, sincerity and genuine interest. I mentally looked over both my shoulders to convince myself he was talking to me and not a VIP standing behind me.

I’ve watched Dr. Rosen at subsequent events, and I’ve noticed he goes out of his way to meet the young practitioners of our profession. And it now makes perfect sense to me why he does it. He explores and nurtures the branches of the mighty oak tree, the seeds of which he planted decades ago.

Approachable and full of hope
Drawing similarities to Bill, I hadn’t had the pleasure of formally meeting him until a National Council of State EMS Medical Directors meeting a few years ago. Although he was an icon in the field of EMS, he introduced himself to me as if we had known each other for years. He told me he believed that many of the challenges and frustrations this industry faces can be managed with open communication between all its organizations.

Bill described the lack of communication between these parties by using the analogy of elements trapped in silos. On the day we met, he slipped me a card that featured a silo inside a big red circle with a line through it, indicating the prohibition of silos. As I took the card from Bill, I realized the silo he described wasn’t just trapping people. It was a holding cell where creative thoughts and missions that could help people would hopelessly stagnate.

As I described in my Oct. 31, 2007 column, “Don’t Forget the Small and Mighty”, Bill never allowed lack of funding to inhibit measures that could help patients or EMS providers. He confidently described dreams for the future, even if financing had yet to be created. “Funding remains elusive,” was a pinnacle statement he made after presenting a fabulous idea that would not come to fruition due to lack of money. Bill’s numerous accomplishments in EMS would surprise many because he preferred to have the spotlight shine on EMS instead of himself.

Truly great leaders are approachable and unpretentious. These leaders reach out to the new kid on the block. They stand shoulder-to-shoulder with novices just as they stand with veteran colleagues. Great leaders embrace the little guy and bring them into the fold on Day One. They’re humble about their personal accolades, preferring to focus on the mission instead. Great leaders impact you even when you only see them once in a blue moon, and they impact you even when they’re not physically present.

On a vintage tribute album to Stevie Ray Vaughn, Eric Clapton said, “It’s a privilege and an honor to play in the memory of Steve who I didn’t get to meet often enough or see play enough. But, every time I did, it gave me chills and made me realize that I was in the presence of greatness.”

As I view the laminated card of the prohibited silo stored in my wallet, I say the same of you, Bill Jermyn. You’re a treasured colleague who will be sorely missed. All of those whose lives you touched were in the presence of greatness.

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