By Pam Hersh
For the past 18 years, Barry Rabner, CEO and president of Penn Medicine Princeton Health (PMPH), has accumulated a slew of professional accomplishments that make his 98-year-old Jewish mother, formerly a nurse in the Russian Army of World War II, very proud.
“I am still not a doctor, however,” Barry said. “But my mother has come around – I think – to acknowledge that being in charge of a healthcare system is a worthwhile profession.” I often would hear him repeat this line (or a version of it), when I worked with him during the Pam-dubbed Princeton HeathCare System’s R&D era of relocation and development. The project included the relocation of the acute care hospital of the Princeton HealthCare System (now Penn Medicine Princeton Health) from Princeton to Plainsboro in 2012, the sale of the old hospital’s Witherspoon Street site in Princeton to Avalon Bay, and the development of a 1.2 billion dollar, 171-acre campus in Plainsboro that includes multiple health care/healthy lifestyle related enterprises.
Retiring from the job as of Jan. 1, 2021, Barry, a longtime Montgomery Township resident, can list achievements that would impress not only his mother, but also any one reading his resume. Since joining Princeton Health in 2002, Barry has led the organization through major milestones that include not only the R&D era of designing, financing and building a new hospital and health campus, but also completing the $171 million capital campaign (the most successful hospital capital campaign in the history of New Jersey and the largest for a health system of Princeton’s size in the United States), partnering with Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, achieving national recognition for excellence as a state-of-the-art healthcare provider, overseeing Princeton Health’s response to a number of crises, including Superstorm Sandy and the current COVID-19 pandemic, and becoming part of the University of Pennsylvania Health System. He also has presided over a number of name changes for the healthcare system and the hospital, which longtime Princetonians still refer to as Princeton Hospital.
When I recently spoke with him about his upcoming retirement, Barry reflected on the fact that his resume fails to reflect what brought him joy and energized him during the stressful moments of all the transitions he has managed.
“What consistently made it all worthwhile was connecting to the people responsible for the success of the hospital,” said Barry, acutely aware of the fact that the successes attributed to him were due to the passion, commitment, and hard work of others. “One of the reasons why I loved to fundraise was my love of getting to know the donors and hear their stories. It didn’t matter whether the individual was a $25 million donor or an employee who contributed $2.50 per paycheck to the fundraising campaign, their stories were equally important and moving. I considered them my friends,” Barry said.
It used to be really tough to walk down the halls of the new hospital with Barry, because it would take so long. Belying his easy-going manner, he took note of every detail of the hospital – physically and operationally to see if all aspects lived up to his unyielding expectation of excellence. In addition, he schmoozed – listened to and shared stories with fellow administrators, administrative support staff, medical professionals and medical support staff, maintenance staff, building project consultants, as well as individuals receiving care on the premises, including those who had a few angry words about the hospital moving to the “other” side of Route 1.
Fairly early in his tenure as CEO, Barry learned the art of dealing with his detractors. His epiphany occurred at nearly 1 a.m. at one of the last meetings out of maybe 100 community forums in 2005 and 2006 concerning Princeton Hospital’s plans to relocate to Plainsboro. Several residents presented their arguments against moving the hospital – and some offered creative ideas about how the hospital could expand on the Witherspoon Street site and accommodate the technology and level of care demanded by the community. One speaker said that she had measured the hallways in the old hospital and, according to her calculations, Princeton Hospital could achieve the needed square footage expansion by simply shrinking the width of the hallways by a few inches. The combination of the late hour and the nature of the question had the effect of leaving Barry speechless. Architect Bob Hillier, who was the lead design consultant for the relocation project, noted Barry’s apparent distress and stood up to whisper something in his ear.
“ ‘Just say thank you,’ said Bob to me. His words jolted me from my paralysis, and I just said ‘thank you.’ The community member said ‘you’re welcome’ and that was it,” said Barry.
He has said “thank you” with heartfelt sincerity thousands of times since then to all those who have been part of his 18-year Penn Medicine Princeton Health journey and those who enabled him to get to PMPH in the first place.
His first job in the healthcare industry was 50 years ago as an orderly for a nursing home in North Jersey. His mom and deceased dad, both Holocaust survivors, instilled in him the fortitude to go forward as a healthcare professional – with purpose and empathy.
“My parents lived in a displaced persons camp after the war for five years awaiting permission to emigrate to the U.S. When I see how people like them are treated today I am overwhelmed,” he said.
He thanks – “never enough” – his wife Amy, a well known community philanthropy professional and past president of the Princeton YWCA Board, his two grown children and now four grandchildren, for being his ballast and providing such extraordinary meaning to his life. And yes, he is looking forward to living the retirement cliché – spending more time with his family.
His retirement, however, never will translate to professional inactivity. He is on the board of trustees of Rider University, where he also teaches. He serves on the board of the Center for Health Design and on the editorial board of the journal HERD, a health environment research and design publication. And he is looking forward to his work as a healthcare delivery consultant, with a particular interest in technology-based healthcare solutions in developing countries.
As far as the future of the healthcare system, he is thankful for Penn Medicine. “The community has benefitted enormously from the merger in January 2018. Penn’s expertise and resources have been crucial to our COVID response and to our ability to carry out life saving procedures in numerous other situations. As an example, we were able to deliver via helicopter a patient with a cardiac emergency from the Princeton OR to the University of Pennsylvania OR in only 23 minutes,” he said.
Obviously, others aside from Barry, are saying “thank you” for his work of the past 18 years.