The Thomas File
- Vice president of plant operations and facilities, Hospital Center at Orange (N.J.)
- Director and assistant director of plant operations and facilities, Hospital Center at Orange
- Director of plant and engineering, Newark (N.J.) Beth Israel Medical Center
- Life Safety Code surveyor, The Joint Commission, Oakbrook Terrace, Ill.
- American Society for Health Care Engineering Senior and Fellow status.
- Certified Health Care Facility Manager.
- ASHE board member and Apex committee member.
- Healthcare Facilities Management Society of New Jersey (HFMSNJ) chapter president.
- HFMSNJ Engineer of the Year.
- Associate’s degree in engineering, Union County College, Cranford, N.J.
- Various management courses at Rutgers University, New Brunswick, N.J.
- Electrical contractor and stationary engineer licenses.
At last month’s American Society for Health Care Engineering (ASHE) annual conference, George L. Thomas, FASHE, CHFM, LSCS, retired, was honored with the Crystal Eagle Award. This month, he talks to Health Facilities Management about his pioneering role as an African-American professional with more than 50 years of service to the field.
How does it feel to win the Crystal Eagle Award?
It’s overwhelming. I’m honored to have been nominated by a close friend who is an established health care professional and past president of ASHE. To have won is not only a surprise, but a humbling experience to know that my career has been recognized by my peers. As the first African-American to receive the Crystal Eagle Award, it brings me pleasure knowing that other engineers of color can be inspired and that their work in health care administration can be recognized and rewarded at the national level.
How did you get involved in the health care field?
After being married, I traveled to New Jersey from Alabama in 1962 to join my brother who was working at the Hospital Center at Orange (formerly Orange Memorial Hospital). I applied and received a job in the environmental services department — in those days, it was called the housekeeping department — where I was responsible for the cleanliness of the hospital, sweeping and washing the floors. This afforded me the opportunity to develop relationships within the department and the hospital. As I completed my responsibilities, I was aware of how important every position is within the hospital. Not only doctors and nurses, but the behind-the-scenes mechanics of the hospital, such as heating and air conditioning, plant operations and grounds.
How did you move into the engineering department and what attracted you?
At the time, there was one African-American gentleman, Roosevelt Hemphill, who had transferred from housekeeping to the engineering department as a carpenter’s helper. He encouraged me to apply to work in the engineering department. Knowing that there were limited opportunities in the housekeeping department, I applied and was hired as a helper, the second African-American in the department. A helper could assist any of the tradesmen, but my primary duties were as an electrician’s helper.
This gave me the opportunity to use the skills I acquired as a young man when I helped my uncle in his automotive repair shop and worked as an electrician wiring houses.
It was at that time that I started to pursue a college degree. It was challenging to work full time, go to school at night, study and maintain a home with my wife and growing family, but I earned an associate’s degree in engineering.
At work, my duties expanded to include maintaining the hospital’s boiler plant, electrical and air conditioning, refrigeration, and construction and renovation. To survive in this changing atmosphere, I expanded my knowledge by studying and passing the state of New Jersey’s board exam, becoming a licensed electrical contractor and, eventually, stationary engineer.
To be successful in the health care field, I also thought it was imperative to join organizations that would provide support and helpful information.
In 1978, you moved to assistant director of plant operations and facilities, later advancing to director and vice president. Was that a big jump?
When I was promoted to assistant director of plant operations and facilities from supervisor, it was an easy choice for the administration. Not only did I have knowledge of the facility, I also had proven myself by obtaining the necessary skills to be productive and successful at a managerial level. By advancing my education and participating in the associated health care societies, I was developing and building relationships that reached beyond the Hospital Center at Orange, which was noted by the administration. It was also noted that my relationship with the professionals in the department was one of mutual respect.
How did your membership in ASHE and Healthcare Facilities Management Society of New Jersey (HFMSNJ) help you along the way?
Associations are vitally important. I believe if you are going to work successfully in facilities engineering in a hospital you have to be part of ASHE in addition to your local chapter. Building relationships within your local chapter means that you can always bounce ideas off someone, give and receive information, keep up-to-date on policies and communicate.
It was in ASHE and HFMSNJ that I was able to build a foundation for leadership. It was by serving on various committees and having the opportunity at times to chair those committees that prepared me to excel in my administrative positions. I was a Region II representative for two terms, serving the National Board of Directors for ASHE for four years. I also served as president of my HFMSNJ chapter for two terms.
In addition to being active in ASHE and a local chapter, I would also recommend being a member of the National Fire Protection Association and ASHRAE, as this allows voting privileges on a national level.
You also worked as a part-time surveyor for The Joint Commission toward the end of your career. What was that like?
This was a wonderful experience. In January 2017, I received my 10-year certificate from The Joint Commission. I had the opportunity to travel the world surveying different health care facilities, during which I not only checked for compliance as a Life Safety Code surveyor, but I also was able to perform in an advisory capacity. Being able to transfer knowledge from my career as a health care facilities engineer was informative and educational to the 400-plus facilities I surveyed. I advised each facility to join ASHE and their local chapter to help maintain the facilities and physical plants.
On a personal level, your three daughters also have been successful, with one being a registered nurse, one a retired FBI agent and one a CPA. To what do you attribute their success?
My wife and I tried to be good examples of people with integrity, demonstrating good character and having a good work ethic. We put God first, family second and work third. We emphasized having respect for others and treating others the way you would want to be treated. Of my three children, two have master’s degrees and are now doctoral candidates. I must also note that my only grandchild is a 2018 Seton Hall graduate with a master’s degree in athletic training. She is now a certified athletic trainer. Success can be measured by many attributes — a loving family, a rewarding career and wealth are just a few. I choose to measure success by leaving a legacy.
What advice would you give to those entering the health facilities management field?
Despite the challenges, it is a rewarding career because the goal is for everyone who enters your facility to have a favorable outcome. Your assessment of facility conditions is vitally important and your communication to the administration is essential to achieving overall hospital functionality. HFM
Mike Hrickiewicz is editor of Health Facilities Management magazine.