Sarah Downey in her office at East General

CEO Downey loves being a part of ‘welcoming hospital’

Taking a peek into the life of Michael Garron Hospital President Sarah Downey, and how she balances everything

“Good morning, Queen Sarah!”

That’s how one housekeeper greets Sarah Downey, CEO of what used to be known as Toronto East General hospital – and what’s now called the Michael Garron Hospital, following the Garron family’s $50-million donation last week in remembrance of their late son.

The name may be changing, but the job is the same; Downey runs an 86-year-old community hospital that in the midst of a major redevelopment continues to deliver an annual average of 3,200 babies and yearly serve 20,000 patients and 70,000 emergency room visitors.

All while being a wife, as well as a mom to two kids, ages 7 and 9.

“Once a week, we walk to work, then we have Tim Hortons for breakfast together in my office and I pack them a Subway sub for lunch as well,” Downey said. Then she packs them off to the French school that they attend just two blocks away.

Downey has lived in the community for eight years, and her affinity for East York is apparent when her eyes widen with pride while listing the reasons she moved here. She also takes time out of her busy schedule to volunteer in the community – and is on the board of WoodGreen Community Services.

She came to the hospital less than a year ago, with a master’s degree in health administration and a resume that most recently included the executive vice-presidency for clinical programs at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH).

“If only I’d known all the great things East General was doing all this time, I’d been banging on their door ages ago,” Downey said.

But despite her recent arrival, Downey is already feeling right at home.

“People have been very open, kind, humble and always stop to talk to me,” Downey said. “It’s a very welcoming hospital, maybe that’s an east end Toronto thing.”

Downey’s days are filled with conversations with staff from different departments. She tries to stay as involved as she can in what’s going on in the hospital. Downey has done dispatches, where she goes out to different lines of the hospital to meet the people doing it and see how they work first-hand. She also does “rounding” on patients, in order to see how they are doing and assure them they are being taken care of.

“An important part of the job as a CEO is to know the people who work in and use this hospital,” Downey said. “I want to know what they like about it, what their challenges are, and how we can find solutions for them, so I spend a lot of my day talking.”

While talking is an important part of her job, finding ways to improve the organization is another. Which is why there is currently an eight-story patient care tower with over 200 patient rooms in the making. Downey wants to make sure the new building is a physical representation of the spirit and people of the community.

“You can’t stop taking care of patients while you build new facilities,” Downey said. “It adds an element of complexity and addition focus on top of everything else hospitals too, but this organization is mature and sophisticated enough to be able to do that.”

Some of the hospital’s physical infrastructure dates back as far as the 1930s. Now, Downey said, she wants to be able to conceptualize and use the leverage she has to help give suggestions on how to put new facilities that will be there “for at least 50 years and serve people who live in this area for all those years to come.”

Juggling such heavy responsibilities is difficult, but Downey said structure helps.

“Life is a balance, and so there are a number of ways I balance the complexities of my life,” she said. “I don’t take my work home, so when I leave work, I know there’s a system at play at the hospital and there will probably be many calls for help to other staff before it gets to me.”

Downey has quite a few plans for the future of Michael Garron Hospital. She said she wants the world to know what a great place the hospital is and hopes it will continue to be a source of pride in the community.

“We are very innovative in what we do, so we want to really continue and propel our great legacy forward and be a star in the healthcare system,” Downey said.

It’s one in the afternoon, and Downey has an important meeting to get to, which all board members and executives are attending. One of the recent additions to the meetings have been patient videos – a video of a different patient each week. The patients provide the management with feedback on the care they’ve received. This practice has been happening for 18 months now and helps top management “stay current” and “hear the patient’s voices.”

Sarah speaking to the staff at the weekly executive meeting. (Nazaneen Baqizada // Toronto Observer)

As Downey walks into the meeting, she is greeted with smiles, laughter and warm-hearted greetings from the staff. When the patient videos finished, the lady running the meeting asks the staff what their thoughts are on it. Downey is the first to put her hand up. Her leadership is what begins the meeting and keeps it going. This is clearly a job that requires that sort of leadership, and that is what Downey seems to radiate.

“Working here so far has been a treasure trove of terrific thing and people,” she said, “and it’s made my decision to come here all the more validated.”