Offering a hand-up, Ross cultivates hope in beleaguered West Baltimore

July 1, 2021

SISTER CAROL KEEHAN AWARD

By RENEE STOVSKY

One of Dr. Samuel L. Ross' favorite quotations is this: "Hope has two beautiful daughters; their names are Anger and Courage. Anger at the way things are, and Courage to see that they do not remain the same." (St. Augustine of Hippo)

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Dr. Samuel L. Ross

Throughout his 15-year career with Bon Secours Health System, Ross says he came to believe that leadership in Catholic health care is about hope and inspiration. "It can't just be a feeling," he says. "It has to be put in action."

But mere activity doesn't come close to describing Ross' crusade on behalf of providing compassionate health and social services to West Baltimore's poor and vulnerable population. During his tenure as chief executive of the Bon Secours Baltimore Health System, he oversaw a standalone inner-city hospital and an ambitious agenda of community outreach under the umbrella of Bon Secours Community Works.

That ministry reaches beyond usual models of health to include investments in affordable housing and neighborhood economic development, services for youth and families, job training, drug and alcohol dependence treatment and peer group recovery support, and behavioral health services. It conducts prison outreach and offers peer support and wraparound social services programs for men and women returning home from prison to the struggling neighborhoods in the hospital's catchment area.

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This circa 2017 photo of the late civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis and Dr. Samuel L. Ross was taken on Capitol Hill at a hearing in support of the Affordable Care Act.

In recognition of his commitment to social justice, Ross is the recipient of the 2021 Sister Carol Keehan Award. The award is named for Sr. Carol, who retired as CHA's president and chief executive officer in 2019. Throughout her life, Sr. Carol has been a champion of social justice and health care access for all, regardless of means, race, religion or creed.

The annual award recognizes an individual who valiantly advocates for a more equitable and compassionate health system.

Transformational leader
"Dr. Ross was addressing the social determinants of health long before it became a cool catch phrase for connecting individual health outcomes to community health," says Bill McCarthy, chief executive of Catholic Charities of Maryland. "In a limited time and limited place, he was able to bring transformational change by thinking outside the box. And he did so while serving with humility and a sense of humor."

"Dr. Ross is a charismatic leader, beloved by his hospital staff, from the housekeeping unit to the physicians," says Mike Stitcher, managing director at BRG Consulting, which advised Ross on overcoming financial hardships at Bon Secours Baltimore Hospital and improving care delivery strategies. "His stewardship helped stabilize a distressed, inner-city hospital and allow it to focus on mission."

Texas bred
Ross describes himself as a "small town boy." Born in Brenham, Texas, he spent his early years in nearby Somerville, population 1,000. His father worked for the railroad while his mother tended to a large family, which included his six brothers and sisters.

When he was 10, the family moved to Taylor, Texas, a "bigger small town," of 7,000. That's where he had several occasions to observe primary care doctors at work. He fractured a finger, which later became infected, while playing softball at age 12. At 13 he fell off his bicycle and required stitches, at 14 he fractured his left wrist playing football. Those experiences, plus a fascination with the TV show "Marcus Welby, M.D." set him on a path toward family medicine.

He earned his medical degree from University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio and did a residency at St. Paul Medical Center/University of Texas Southwestern Medical School in Dallas. He had a private family medicine practice for five years before his first administrative role as a medical director at Parkland Hospital there.

It suited him, and by 2000 he had added a master of science degree in medical management from the University of Texas at Dallas to his resume. By 2005 he had become executive vice president and chief medical officer at Parkland.

That's when Sr. Pat Eck, now congregational leader for the Congregation of the Sisters of Bon Secours of Paris, first met Ross.

Perfect fit
"We were recruiting at the time for the position of CEO at Bon Secours Baltimore, and I wondered why someone with Dr. Ross' experience and knowledge, working at a prestigious 950-bed hospital in Dallas, would choose to come to a 140-bed hospital in the heart of inner-city Baltimore," she says. "I came to believe he was interested because he saw significant need there. He is one of most spiritually grounded people I know. For us, he was the absolute perfect fit."

Says Ross: "At Parkland, I presided over a division called Community Oriented Primary Care, or COPC, which had a large outpatient clinic network that included not only community-based but school and homeless mobile programs. When I saw what Bon Secours was involved in — affordable housing, workforce development, early childhood programs, social needs — I saw another way COPC could be manifested, much closer to the people we serve."

Still, Ross says three things had to exist to allow him to make the decision to move east.

"My wife Carolyn had to be willing to relocate, Bon Secours leadership had to believe I was really the right person for the position, and God had to say this is where I had to be at that point of my life," he recalls. "It really had to be a calling."

Rise and pray
In fact, because Ross' mission is so faith-based, one of the first things he instituted upon his arrival in Baltimore in August 2006 was a "servant leadership learning community." Several years later he started a 6 a.m. prayer group for any interested colleague that continues to this day.

"I was raised as a Baptist; my father became a minister when I was in high school. When Catholic health care talks about the healing ministry of Jesus Christ, it is not foreign to my own upbringing," he says. "I now consider myself a hybrid — a Baptolic."

Though Ross says he found "a lot of good people who wanted to do a lot of good things" when he arrived at Bon Secours Baltimore, it would take more than faith to turn around a hospital facing significant financial challenges and positively impact the health of a community blighted by poverty, drugs, violence and more.

Bottom line
Ross' leadership in improving operational efficiency and productivity helped to stabilize the hospital and turn a $20 million budget deficit into a positive bottom line in four years. At the same time, Ross expanded Bon Secours' Community Works initiative, and supported the hospital's investment developing nearby vacant properties into affordable housing and a senior housing complex. He also expanded offerings to cover a wide range of social services to target problems that affect public health, and emphasized including local residents in all decisions affecting the community.

In addition to his responsibilities as chief executive of Bon Secours Baltimore, Ross was executive vice president and supply chain leader at the health system. He also became a city leader, serving on the police commissioner's African American Advisory Council, the mayor's heroin treatment and prevention task force, the governor's commission on service and volunteerism, and as board chair of the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond, Baltimore branch.

In addition to his serious work, Ross is fondly remembered by Bon Secours staff and leaders for his annual autumn fundraiser, a Texas barbecue party replete with a mechanical bull, lasso demonstrations, and plenty of Western attire, from cowboy boots to 10-gallon hats. "Sam was famous for his homemade ribs and beans, and his wife wore a holster with a bottle of tequila inside, selling shots to raise money for the hospital," recalls Sr. Pat Dowling, CBS.

Rewired, not retired
In 2018, Bon Secours Health System merged with Mercy Health to form Bon Secours Mercy Health System. Ross became the new system's chief community health officer with continuing responsibilities as president and chief executive of Bon Secours Baltimore Hospital.

With the sale of that hospital to the for-profit LifeBridge Health in 2019, financial proceeds were earmarked for the continuation and expansion of programming at Bon Secours Community Works.

Ross retired on Dec. 31. A few months earlier he was appointed to SSM Health Ministries, the sponsor board of SSM Health, and that system's board of directors.

"I'm not retired, just rewired. And I'm still plenty busy," he says.

And he's staying actively involved in West Baltimore as a member of the Community Works board. A major Community Works initiative — partnering with Kaiser Permanente Mid-Atlantic to convert a long-shuttered library into a $6.8 million community resource center — is scheduled to open in October. It's a project that Ross and others have spent years developing with neighborhood leaders, and he hopes it demonstrates his philosophy that "behavior equals beliefs."

"People look to see not what you are saying but what you are doing," he says. "We need to always continue supporting our mission and caring for our community."

 

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