Last Wednesday, a tribute to a beloved hospital CEO who died began with one man throwing a pie at another.
Nabil El Sanadi, former CEO of the Broward Health Medical Center, one of the ten largest public hospital systems in the nation, died by suicide on January 23. El Sanadi, 60, who reportedly gave little warning that he may have been struggling with depression or mental illness, shot himself in the lobby bathroom at his Lauderdale-by-the-Sea condominium. He had recently undergone triple bypass surgery.
As tributes to El Sanadi poured in on social media — most of those who knew him called him a supernaturally kind and generous person — the Sun Sentinel ran an obituary. The story quoted El Sanadi's most vocal critic, blogger and Broward Health Regional Planning Council board member Dan Lewis. Lewis had accused El Sanadi of mismanaging Broward Health. The hospital system earlier this year agreed to pay the government $70 million to settle a lawsuit that it had been giving illegal kickbacks to its doctors, although the misdeeds that led to the lawsuit predated El Sanadi's tenure as CEO. Lewis, however, blamed El Sanadi for further financial mismanagement at the hospitals. So when asked how he felt about El Sanadi's death, Lewis didn't hold back.
"He has decimated professional and competent senior staff and put in place people that will give him the answers that he wanted," Lewis, told the Sun Sentinel. "While I'm sensitive and sorry for people's loss, the damage he has done to Broward Health is almost incalculable."
After reading this, John deGroot of Wilton Manors, went to Publix and bought a $7 berry cream pie.
DeGroot, who is in his late 70s, is a former reporter. He won a Pulitzer Prize with the Akron Beacon Journal before writing for the now-defunct Philadelphia Bulletin and then the Sun Sentinel. He's now retired but blogs regularly on multiple platforms and reads the news regularly.
"I’ve known Nabil for almost 30 years," deGroot told New Times. "He is arguably one of the most decent, caring people I've known in my life. And I'm a recovering journalist, so haven’t known that many decent, caring people. Journalists don’t come in contact with decent, caring people. Mostly we come in contact with assholes."
DeGroot said he met El Sanadi when the doctor was working in an emergency room. DeGroot had been writing a story about a cop who had been shot. DeGroot followed the man into the emergency room — he says journalists were allowed inside back then — and watched as El Sanadi desperately tried to prevent the man from bleeding out. But El Sanadi was unable to save the cop, and when the man died, the doctor began to weep.
"So here’s this big guy, covered in blood, weeping because he couldn’t save this young cop’s life," deGroot said. "That's what kind of guy he was, the kind of physician who would cry if he lost a patient."
So when deGroot read Lewis' comments, he became enraged. "Here’s this guy trashing his memory," deGroot said. So he felt his only recourse was to hit Dan Lewis with a pie the next time he saw him.
DeGroot knew Lewis was a regular at Broward Health's regular board meetings, so he showed up to last Wednesday's meeting and waited for Lewis to arrive. After Lewis spoke with a few board members, he walked to get a copy of the meeting's agenda.
It was at this point that deGroot finally saw Lewis and walked up behind him with the pie. DeGroot yelled "something to the effect of 'I’m not going to let you get away with trashing my friend’s reputation!'" deGroot said.
And then he threw the pie at Lewis.
"The difficulty is, I probably got more on me than I did on him," deGroot said. After trying to wing the pie at Lewis, the pair engaged in what deGroot called a "berry-pie wrestling match."
"He put up his hands in defense," deGroot said. "I thought, 'Maybe he's had people throw pies at him before?' He reacted really well. I thought in retrospect that it was an excellent berry-pie-defense position."
Lewis claimed only a small bit of whipped cream landed on his sleeve and collar. Most of the pie, he said, eventually fell to the floor.
"It's sad," Lewis said. "Just sad. This was supposed to be a dignified meeting, and that kind of conduct is not called for. Some people said I should have put him down on the ground or had him arrested. But he probably needs to be Baker Acted and not arrested. He's just a sad, angry shell of an old man."
Rather than function regularly, the meeting then developed into a tribute for El Sanadi, and board members took turns giving tributes to their fallen leader. Lewis said he simply brushed himself off and sat back down.
And if deGroot found the incident amusing — and, he stressed, he did — it didn't exactly force Lewis to change his mind. In a blog post last Friday, Lewis expressed his condolences to those who were close to El Sanadi before laying out the exact issues he had with El Sanadi as an executive in stark detail.
"I did not know the personal side of Dr. Nabil El Sanadi, but I respect the feelings of those that did and they have my sincere condolences," Lewis wrote. He then blamed El Sanadi, in part, for steep financial losses at the institution, including $87 million in the last six months of 2015.
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During Dr. El Sanadi’s tenure, long-term relations with Nova Southeastern University, and the University of Miami were overtly severed, and Broward Health entered into an ill-conceived expensive multi-million dollar agreement with The Cleveland Clinic, a direct competitor, to provide transplant services when Broward Health failed to receive a certificate of need for this duplicative and apparently unnecessary service.
Corporate senior staff in marketing, quality assurance finance, purchasing, physician staffing and operations all “retired” or were part of “work-force reductions” shortly after expressing alarm or opposition to Dr. El Sanadi’s actions or the actions of his elevated “inner circle”.
The heart and soul of a hospital system are its physicians, nurses and healthcare professionals – and according to many, their relationship with Broward Health corporate leadership during Dr. El Sanadi tenure have never been worse.
But deGroot, who has also criticized Broward Health often in the past, said right now is simply not the time or place to lob criticisms at a man who'd just killed himself. This is a tragedy, he said, and he is utterly disappointed that Lewis doesn't seem to have realized that.
"Would I pie him again?" deGroot asked rhetorically. "Absolutely. I wish I'd had a bigger pie and that my aim was better."
Correction: This piece originally said Lewis blamed El Sanadi for financial mismanagement that led to the government's $70 million settlement with Broward Health. It has been amended.