Armed with a list of names and a stack of grocery gift cards, Dr. Akram Boutros walks the halls of MetroHealth Medical Center hand-delivering holiday thank-yous to his reports.
From nearly every office he enters, a peal of laughter spills back out, evidence of the rapport MetroHealth's president and CEO has built with his staff in just seven months on the job.
"There's remarkable impact in appreciation," says Boutros, who was previously a consultant for hospital turnarounds and an administrator at St. Francis Hospital in Roslyn, N.Y. "It helps create a bond between manager and staff that can spark a change in a relationship."
The chance to lead Cleveland's third-largest hospital may have been a professional enticement for Boutros, but what most energizes him are these opportunities to build up others. It is exactly what he's doing at MetroHealth, where five years of financial strain and layoffs have weakened morale among its 6,000-plus staff.
Becoming a doctor was a childhood dream of the Egyptian-born Boutros, who moved to New York City with his family at 12. Desperate to fit in and initially speaking no English, he drifted away from that path.
"I felt alone, with negative influences around me," he says. "I began hanging around kids who were forming a gang."
Then, while delivering newspapers at 15, Boutros was hit by a truck, which shattered his lower extremities. He didn't walk for six months and required 11 surgeries over seven years.
"I spent most of that first night sobbing," he says. "It put me back on track of wanting to be a doctor."
Boutros gravitated early in his career to administration, which he saw as a way to help more people than he could at the bedside. But today, he can be found a few times a week visiting with the most afflicted of MetroHealth's patients.
"Health care is a business. Medicine is a science. But what we're talking about is healing," he says. "It's forgetting your training and who you are and connecting with an individual on a human level."
Boutros' days start as early as 5 a.m. and end as late as 11 p.m., but each includes a couple of hours walking the halls — sometimes in scrubs — greeting employees with a high-five, hug or pat on the back.
Every interaction is a chance for encouragement, replacing the requisite "How are you?" with more direct approaches such as "Is there anything you need?" or "What can I do to help you?" "To help people believe in themselves and achieve greater than they ever thought possible, there's no greater joy in my life," says Boutros.