TURNING TEN: New leader takes helm at Upstate Golisano Children’s Hospital
BY AMBER SMITH
When he completed his medical school applications, Greg Conners didn’t just say he wanted to become a doctor. He was one of four students in his class of 100 who knew the exact specialty for which they were suited. He was going to be a pediatrician.
“I’m a kid guy,” Conners says proudly.
(Click here for some personal impressions of the children's hospital from both patients and staff.)
(Click here for a quiz about some of Golisano's notable visitors.)
Now, as professor and chair of the department of pediatrics at Upstate, Conners oversees the Upstate Golisano Children’s Hospital.
One of his duties is to greet the new pediatric residents. Earlier in the week, Conners attended a dinner saluting the doctors who completed the three-year program. This day, he’s greeting those who will take their places. Such is the life cycle of an academic medical center.
These residents are medical school graduates who will work for three years in pediatrics at Upstate. (The term is a holdover from a time when new doctors actually lived in the hospital where they worked.) Upstate has 47 pediatric residents, who come to Syracuse from all over the world, plus several pediatric fellows who are pursuing specialized training after their residency.
“Taking care of kids and being a pediatrician is a privilege and a responsibility,” Conners tells the new doctors. “It’s important to take your role seriously.”
The residents join a staff of 72 pediatricians and more than 400 pediatric nurses, therapists, social workers and other dedicated pediatric staff who care for about 100,000 pediatric patients each year. The children come from 17 counties surrounding Syracuse, plus parts of Pennsylvania and Vermont.
Conners took the helm March 4, after the retirement of Thomas Welch, MD, who oversaw the creation of the children’s hospital. Although it’s part of the Upstate University Hospital building, it operates separately.
Construction costs for the hospital totaled $70 million, $21 million of which the Upstate Foundation collected through a large fundraising campaign.
Public generosity was overwhelming. Ads that depicted a gleaming new building with private rooms and gorgeous views of Syracuse, filled with pediatric specialists, prompted people to donate amounts large and small. Staff from Upstate University Hospital pledged personal donations of nearly $2 million to build the children’s hospital. Beloved pediatrician Fred Roberts, MD, who practiced in Syracuse for more than 60 years, donated proceeds from sales of his two books. Students at schools throughout the region staged various fundraisers.
Ultimately, the hospital was named after its chief benefactor: businessman Thomas Golisano.
The doors opened on Sept. 23, 2009.
Beth Nelsen, MD, says it was an honor to be a chief resident that monumental day. Ten years later, she’s an associate professor of pediatrics and pediatrics residency program director. One of her jobs is to interview medical students who are applying for a pediatrics residency at Upstate Golisano. Many say it’s the nicest hospital they’ve visited.
“I’m a local, so I have a lot of Syracuse pride,” Nelsen says. “When somebody comes into my home and says, ‘It’s beautiful here,’ that makes me really proud.”
Like patients and their families, doctors prefer to be in a space customized for the comfort of children and families, surrounded by modern equipment and a staff dedicated to children. The hospital helps to attract pediatricians in specialties such as gastroenterology, neurosurgery, endocrinology and others.
Among the 71 beds dedicated to pediatric patients are 12 for cancer and blood diseases, 15 for intensive care and 44 for medical/surgical issues. The 285-square-foot patients’ rooms are all private, with space for a sofa bed for a parent, and bathrooms with showers. Plans are in the works to add eight psychiatric beds for adolescents.
Conners came to Upstate from Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City, Missouri. He’s a native of the Rochester, New York, area and went to medical school at SUNY Stony Brook, graduating in 1989. He completed a residency and fellowship at Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, D.C.
He’s had experience with several children’s hospitals. He is impressed with this one — and with its potential.
Already he’s collaborating with children’s hospital executives from throughout Upstate New York. “What we’re working on, and it’s not easy, is to group together so that there are ways to take care of kids who have really high-tech or very specialized needs, without making them have to travel [out of state],” Conners says.
A highly specialized pediatric service might not have enough demand for services in a community the size of Syracuse or Rochester. But, if Syracuse offers something not available in Rochester, and Rochester offers something else that is not available in Syracuse, families in both communities can benefit.
“There’s a lot of pride in running your own place and saying, ‘We’re good on our own.’ I also think it’s important to realize there are some areas where it’s not a matter of greatness. It’s a matter of economies of scale, of doing the right thing for patients,” he says.
“We can work together to be proud of what we can do collectively.”
Building on legacies
Discussion of the need for a children’s hospital goes back at least to the 1970s, when Frank Oski, MD, was chair of Upstate’s pediatrics department, says retired pediatrician Howard Weinberger, MD. Oski, who went on to lead the Johns Hopkins Children’s Center, literally wrote the book on pediatrics. His text, “Principles and Practices of Pediatrics” is still in use.
Weinberger recalls many meetings, but little consensus, until Thomas Welch, MD, arrived in the summer of 2001. Welch’s first task was to drum up support for the concept of a children’s hospital. “I had to convince the community that communities are judged by the way they take care of their children — and we really needed to do a better job,” Welch says. “There was such universal buy-in from the community.”
Once the children’s hospital opened, eight years after his arrival, nearby hospitals stopped admitting pediatric patients, instead sending ill and injured children who required hospitalization to Golisano. Soon, plans were underway to expand Upstate’s pediatric emergency department as well.
Before August 2016, the pediatric emergency department occupied a corner of the adult emergency department. It could get crowded and noisy. “We did great with what we had,” says pediatric emergency department Director Richard Cantor, MD, acknowledging the desire for a more peaceful space devoted to children and adolescents.
Today, the pediatric emergency department occupies a wing on the fourth floor of University Hospital, separate from the adult emergency department. Each year, it treats about 30,000 kids up to age 19.
The expansion cost $9 million, much of the money brought in through donations. Six patient rooms bear plaques in honor of Cantor. And the medication room is named in memory of Robert Kanter, MD, a renowned pediatrics professor with a long gray ponytail who opened and led the region’s first pediatric intensive care unit at Upstate, decades before the children’s hospital was built.
The dictation room has a plaque bearing the name of Robert Dracker, MD, an Upstate graduate and pediatrician who founded Summerwood Pediatrics. Even though Upstate had pediatric specialty doctors before the children’s hospital was built, Dracker says having an actual children’s hospital “has enabled us to have pediatric-focused care with regard to facilities and nursing.”
It is the dictation room where Conners and the rest of the doctors gather at the start of his 4 p.m. shift one Wednesday afternoon in June. Here, the doctors who are getting off duty brief those coming on. A toddler gives a slow, drowsy wail somewhere down the hall, past the cleaning cart painted like a giraffe.
Conners has a beaming demeanor. He speaks softly. Draped around his neck is a red stethoscope. He rubs sanitizer between his hands while he listens to the reports about the patients in the pediatric emergency department that afternoon.
An 8-week-old with diarrhea and vomiting will probably need to be admitted. Needing to be assessed are a 19-year-old girl who was in a head-on collision, a 15-year-old girl with abdominal pain, and a 10-year-old boy with unusual swelling. And there are more patients just arriving.
Conners is on duty alongside Leah Bennett, MD, an assistant professor of emergency medicine. She’ll take care of patients in even-numbered rooms.
He gets the ones in odd numbers.
He heads to room 11. Cartoons play silently on the wall-mounted television. On the bed looking tiny is a 2-year-old girl with pink and black beads woven into braids. The girl looks at Conners with wide eyes.
“Hi, Sweetheart,” he says.
Her mom explains that the girl has had a cold for a week, with a slight fever. She’s worried.
Conners talks to the girl. He holds the round end of his stethoscope.
“Can I put this on you?”
She squeaks an affirmative reply. She’s transfixed by his face.
After he listens to her breathing, Conners shows her a tool called an otoscope.
“Sweetie, this is a light,” he says, flicking it on and aiming the light onto his palm for her to see. The girl extends her hand. He moves the beam of light onto her palm. She’s thrilled. She lets him peer into her ear.
Next, Conners sees a teen boy in room 13 with a headache after a blindsided tackle during a football game at recess.
Conners wraps up with the boy. Then he heads to the dictation room.
A countertop lines three sides of the room. Seven computers are placed in front of seven stools. That’s where doctors and pediatric and emergency medicine residents document their interactions with their patients. They prescribe various tests, medications or treatments. The room usually has snacks. Today, someone has brought in a pan of homemade Rice Krispies treats, some chocolate almond biscotti and a small bowl of candy.
“Everybody good? Anyone need anything?” Conners asks, before obliging his sweet tooth. Neither of his patients appears to be seriously ill or injured. After getting lab work (the toddler girl) and medical images (the teen boy), both will go home.
At 8:35 a.m. the next Monday, Conners — as the executive director of the Upstate Golisano Children’s Hospital — led the daily “Pediatric Safety and Operations Brief.” This is a group phone call that unites people from 22 departments in the children’s hospital. Representatives from inpatient rehabilitation, respiratory care and the laboratory are part of it. So are people from materials management, clinical engineering and the physical plant.
They share information: how many pediatric patients are in the hospital this morning; whether any areas are short on staff; that public safety officers were summoned twice overnight to help with a combative patient; and a notice from the pharmacy that the injectable sedative midazolam is in short supply, so doctors should prescribe something else when possible. The issues that arise are typical for a children’s hospital.
The call is quick and helps every department start each day on the same page. Each call ends with a quote, which Conners enjoys selecting. Today he reminds the group: “Children are great imitators, so give them something great to imitate.”
This article appears in the fall 2019 issue of Upstate Health magazine. Click here for the full online version of the magazine.