The local healthcare community gathered at Watauga Medical Center on Thursday to exchange handshakes and hugs with longstanding Appalachian Regional Healthcare System CEO Richard Sparks, who will officially retire tonight from the position he’s held for 39 years.
Friends, neighbors and colleagues shared kind words and hellos with Sparks over lunch in the medical center’s Councill Auditorium during a retirement celebration that also welcomed his successor, Chuck Mantooth, who has served ARHS in a multitude of administrator roles over the past 25 years.
Sparks announced his intention to retire this year nearly nine months ago, after which the board of trustees began an extensive search for his replacement. Mantooth’s role as CEO of ARHS officially begins on Friday.
“I am both honored and humbled for the opportunity to serve this organization and this community,” Mantooth said in a recent statement from ARHS. “I want to thank the Board of Trustees for their confidence and support, and thank Richard for his guidance over the years. Richard has done an incredible job positioning us for the future and it is important to me to continue the strong legacy of quality, service and teamwork. We have an incredible group of employees and physicians dedicated to caring for others and I’m excited to walk side by side with them as we continue to live out our mission.”
Continue scrolling to read our featured story on Sparks and his career, which was first published in High Country Magazine December 2013.
The Heartbeat of High Country Healthcare: Richard Sparks
Leading the Community through Compassion for 35 Years
By: Megan Northcote
Sometimes in life, things happen for a reason. Just ask Richard Sparks, President and CEO of Appalachian Regional Healthcare System (ARHS), who was honored this January for 35 years of service to ARHS and the High Country.
It was 1976 and, like most Appalachian State University college alumni, twenty-three-year-old Richard Sparks stood at the crossroads of adolescence and adulthood, contemplating one of life’s most daunting, yet exhilarating questions.
Born and raised in Shelby, N.C., the first time Sparks set foot on ASU’s campus as a freshman, he was instantly overwhelmed by an unexplainable feeling of possibility, freshness and adventure.
His first impressions didn’t fail him, and four years later, he had earned his diploma – a bachelor’s degree in business administration with an emphasis in healthcare, one of the university’s newest programs at the time.
Never one to settle for status quo, the recent college graduate dreamed of attending George Washington University and earning his Master of Hospital Administration. Yet, finances got in the way, and by the fall of 1976, Sparks found himself back at ASU, taking a couple classes, awaiting the day he could afford his dream school. A semester passed, and the day finally came for Sparks to transfer to GWU. Yet, after much deliberation, he turned it down.
Working as an assistant manager at the former Mountaineer Apartments on Bodenheimer Drive in Boone, Sparks essentially had a free place to live. Plus, with a graduate assistantship already in place, he had his ASU tuition nearly paid for, and saw no reason to relocate. And for the real deal sealer, ASU continued to engulf Sparks with that same feeling of possibility and adventure.
On a whim, Sparks decided to stay in Boone just a little bit longer (only temporarily of course) to earn his MBA from ASU, which he did in 1978.
Fast forward 35 years, and Sparks still hasn’t left the High Country.
Had he moved away, the High Country may have never found the same leadership and vision Sparks demonstrated in shaping, building and expanding ARHS into what it’s become today – the region’s leading healthcare system.
Today, ARHS boasts a staff of over 1,500 employees serving the High Country through three hospitals – Blowing Rock Hospital (soon to be replaced by the Appalachian Place at Chestnut Ridge, Center for Healthy Living and Rehabilitation), Charles A. Cannon, Jr., Memorial Hospital in Linville, and the Watauga Medical Center in Boone, which includes the Cardiology Center, the Seby B. Jones Regional Cancer Center, the Paul H. Broyhill Wellness Center and several other specialty units.
Spend even a few minutes with Sparks, and you’ll soon realize he’s far too humble to take full credit for the success of ARHS, which sees 6,500 inpatient visits, 33,000 emergency room visits and over 100,000 outpatient visits per year. Yet, he’ll never deny that choosing to stay in Boone just a little bit longer was one of the best decisions he’s ever made both for himself and for the High Country.
“Sometimes in life, when things don’t go your way and it looks like plans have been shattered, things really turn out better than what you thought,” Sparks reflected. “For me, [staying at ASU instead of going to GWU] was really a life-changing event. At first, it was a disappointment, but it turned out to be a great thing for me.”
Building a Leader
On April 17, 1938, Watauga Hospital, housed inside Founders Hall on ASU’s campus, opened its doors to accept its first patient. At first, the hospital, which had been financed entirely by state funds and community donations, flourished.
But by the early 1960s, the original hospital had outgrown its footprint and was plagued by space issues. In response, the Board of Trustees began a campaign to create a new hospital, securing large funds from the North Carolina Medical Care Commission Duke Endowment Grant and a local bond referendum.
At last, on May 23, 1967, a newly expanded, 83-bed facility, relocated to its present day location at Deerfield Road, and announced their grand opening.
This new hospital fell into the capable hands of Mrs. Virginia Groce, hospital administrator between 1956 and 1989. She supervised a hospital staff of 56, including eight medical staff members, seven general practitioners and one surgeon.
Time marched on, and the hospital continued to grow, prompting another 75,000-square-foot addition in March 1975 with the approval of a $4.9 million bond, doubling the hospital’s size.
For the next five years, construction crews labored away on the expansion.
Overseeing the construction project was none other than a young Richard Sparks, who was appointed Groce’s administrative assistant on January 22, 1978 when he began working for Watauga Hospital, Inc.
Working closely with the architects and building contractors, Sparks learned how to read engineering blue prints, the basics of installing electrical wiring and plumbing pipes, and everything else that went into building a new facility. Most importantly, Sparks received firsthand experience in team building and employee management, skills which would prove vital to his success as a healthcare leader years later.
“I had a lot of time to learn about human behavior, negotiations, and leadership, how you motivate people to do the things that need to be done,” Sparks reflected. “It really was a real life laboratory for me.” For about ten years, Sparks continued working under Groce, getting his feet wet in as many areas of hospital administration as possible, by taking on small-scale projects, such as working to streamline the hospital accreditation process.
“In those days, prior to the late 1960s before Medicare and Medicaid, most people didn’t have insurance, so financially, operating a hospital was very, very stressful,” Sparks admitted. “Ms. Groce could stretch a dime farther than anybody I’ve ever met. So I learned a lot about being very prudent with your money, maximizing your resources and not trying to do everything at once.”
Years passed when suddenly, in 1989, Groce fell ill and had to step down from her position. Hoping to find a quick replacement, the hospital board decided to allow Sparks to fill Groce’s position, but only temporarily for six months. Before his trial run ended, Sparks had proven to the board that he possessed the leadership and drive to pick up where Groce had left off.
“Richard had outstanding leadership ability, good vision and management concepts,” Paige R. Murray, former Watauga Hospital Board of Trustees member from 1978 to 1999, said. “He had the vision, experience and heart to take the organization forward.”
And without a doubt, he did exactly that.
In June 1989 at 34 years young, Sparks found himself in charge of the Watauga Hospital.
But even today, he’ll tell you he never felt intimidated by the amount of power and responsibility vested in him at such a young age.
Instead, he proceeded to do what any young man would – dream.
When Sparks was first appointed CEO, Paige Murray, who then served as Chairman of the Board, gave Sparks some words of advice he never forgot. Leaving Sparks in his new office, Murray turned, and told him, “You’re captain of the ship now Richard, you take it where it needs to go.”
Taking his words to heart, Sparks didn’t just steer the ship, he worked to turn his dreams into a reality. Moving in full force, he started with perhaps his most ambitious project of his career to date – building a cancer center.
In the early 1990s, just a year into his new position, Sparks and his board began investigating the need for a cancer center in the High Country to serve patients in Ashe, Avery, Watauga and Wilkes County and Johnson County.
While doing the research, Sparks was shocked to learn that approximately 1 in 4 cancer patients he spoke with in the High Country would rather stay at home and let the cancer take its toll than drive off the mountain to receive proper treatment.
Originally, Sparks planned to partner with Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center to utilize their expertise in establishing a cancer center for the High Country.
When this partnership fell through, Sparks turned to Dr. Herman Godwin, Medical Director of Blumenthal Cancer Center at Carolinas Medical Center in Charlotte.
Placing full confidence in Sparks’ leadership abilities, Godwin agreed to help Sparks launch the medical oncology services in the Seby B. Jones Regional Cancer Center, which opened on the Watauga Medical Center campus in 1993.
On January 14, 1993, Godwin made his first trip to the new Cancer Center in Boone, serving four patients that day. With each subsequent trip to Boone, Godwin’s clientele continued to grow.
After retiring from Carolinas Medical Center in 1999, Godwin relocated to Blowing Rock and was appointed by Sparks to serve as the Senior Vice President and Medical Director for ARHS, a position he continues to hold today. Godwin briefly resumed his practice as medical oncologist between 2002 and 2006 in Boone, and by 2005, the Watauga Medical Center’s oncology department was renamed in his honor.
Godwin strongly maintains that the Cancer Center’s success is primarily a tribute to the foresight that Sparks demonstrated in having the vision to establish the Center. “Richard is a really good person possessing high standards and ethical principles. He is always one to emphasize the crucial importance of teamwork,” Godwin stated. “He is transparent in his leadership style, freely sharing his thoughts, ideas, and values with his team. The importance of teamwork and meeting community needs instilled in his staff by Richard is matched by a consistent increase in a loyal patient clientele.”
For instance, the total number of patient appointments seen in the Center’s medical oncology division jumped from 11,995 in 2010 to 15,275 in 2012. Likewise, the radiation oncology division saw 214 new patients in 2012, or an average of 18 new patients per month, bringing the total number of patient appointments for the year to 1,464.
An 8,000-square-foot addition in 2002 has allowed for enhanced cancer diagnostic and treatment procedures, including radiation therapy, chemotherapy, biotherapy, immunotherapy, prostate brachytherapy and hormonal treatments, among other services. One day a week, the Cancer Center oncologists hold clinics in Ashe and Avery counties as a way of extending services throughout the High Country.
But the real success story behind the Center is not in the statistics, but in the human relationships and bonds formed between patients, staff and Sparks.
A few years ago, as Sparks was making the rounds through the Cancer Center, he noticed an 80-year-old woman with a scarf covering her head, shuffling from the radiation oncology building across the parking lot, assisted by a nurse.
As Sparks approached the woman in greeting, the nurse looked at the patient and said, “Mrs. Jones, this is the man who is responsible for the facility being here.”
Sparks sheepishly shook his head, trying to find the right words to deflect taking full credit for the facility’s existence.
The elderly woman stopped, pulled the scarf away from her face, and, looking Sparks straight in the eye, said “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome, Mrs. Jones, but you know a lot of people were involved in creating this facility, it wasn’t just me,” Sparks replied humbly.
“Well, I don’t know how much longer I’m going to live,” Mrs. Jones responded, “but I know I’m going to live a little bit longer because of you.”
And for Sparks, that’s what it’s all about – changing people’s lives for the better. “Once in a while, those feel good moments happen and all the bad stuff, the hard stuff, the lying awake at night worrying, it’s all worth it,” Sparks said.
Building a Legacy
The Cancer Center, Sparks’ proudest accomplishment, was only a precursor to the many other ARHS projects to come under his leadership.
Kenneth Wilcox, who currently serves on the Appalachian Regional Healthcare Board of Trustees, also served on the Watauga Hospital Board of Trustees in the mid 1960s and again in the mid 1980s, and has known Sparks his entire career.
Wilcox sites the opening of The Cardiology Center in the mid 1990s and the Watauga Medical Center/Scott Mallard Kidney Dialysis Center in June 2009 as two more success stories. Much like the creation of the Cancer Center, both of these services prevented patients from having to drive down the mountain to Hickory, Charlotte or Winston Salem to seek treatment, Wilcox explained.
Undoubtedly, the Paul H. Broyhill Wellness Center, which is now celebrating its fifteenth anniversary, has impacted more individuals in the High Country than any other ARHS service, Wilcox said, by offering state of the art equipment, specialized staff and unique fitness programs to prevent illness and maintain wellness. Built in March 1998, the 62,000-square-foot facility features two aquatic pools and attracts between 2,000 and 3,000 members annually.
“Through his leadership and vision, none of this would ever have been accomplished,” Wilcox stated. “Richard has been lucky to have had quality community leaders on his board.”
One of these community leaders is John Blackburn, general manager of Eseeola Lodge in Linville for 30 years. Blackburn also served on ARHS board in 1996 as the first non-Watauga County resident, as well as chair a couple times, and currently serves as vice chair.
Yet, he was most instrumental in merging Sloop Memorial Hospital in Crossnore with Charles A. Cannon, Jr., Memorial Hospital in Banner Elk, to form Avery Health Care System, Inc. The new hospital, also called Charles A. Cannon Jr. Memorial, opened in Linville in 1999.
For ten years, between 1999 and 2009, Blackburn chaired Cannon Hospital, a 25-bed acute care facility with a ten bed inpatient behavioral health unit among other services.
Eventually, Blackburn began to realize that the new Cannon Hospital was too small and lacked proper specialty services to successfully operate on its own.
Collaborating with Sparks, Blackburn and other board leaders secured funding to merge Cannon Hospital with the Watauga Medical Center, forming ARHS in 2004. By 2007, Blowing Rock Hospital joined ARHS, forming a three part healthcare alliance for the High Country.
“The merging process was tough financially, but without Richard, it may not have worked,” Blackburn admitted.
Equally challenging was securing enough responsible, hardworking staff to help the High Country’s leading healthcare system operate, thrive and grow at its newly expanded size.
Once again, Sparks had everything under control.
“Richard has an acumen for picking the right people to work in the right places and has been very instrumental in recruiting his staff,” Blackburn said. “I’ve learned a lot about hiring people from him. Anyone could have built these buildings with fancy equipment, but without good providers, ARHS would be nothing compared to what it is today.” First a Student,
Always a Student
When Dr. John E. Thomas, former ASU chancellor from 1979-1993, first met Sparks when Sparks was a student at ASU in the mid-70s, he never dreamed he’d be approaching Sparks years later for advice on how to teach healthcare.
It was 1996, three years after Thomas’ retirement, and Kenneth Peacock, then the Dean of the Walker College of Business at ASU, told Thomas they were short a healthcare management professor.
Having a business degree, but lacking professional training in healthcare, Thomas went to his long time friend and told Sparks to teach him all he knew about the field.
“Because of Sparks’ competent instruction, teaching healthcare management was the most enjoyable ten years of my career,” Thomas said, who, earlier in his career, had worked as an engineer, a manager for NASA and a lawyer.
Sparks’ avid desire to learn and continue learning years after his time as a college student has formed the cornerstone to his success. Years of studying every side of hospital operations from the most technical medical terms to cutting-edge healthcare equipment have helped ARHS thrive under Sparks’ skilled leadership.
It came as no surprise then, when, in 1999, Sparks accepted Chancellor Kenneth E. Peacock and Dr. Thomas’ invitation to accompany them and a group of ASU students to Fudan University, one of the most prestigious universities in Shanghai, to examine the university’s medical school.
Originally, the chancellors had established an exchange program with Fudan University where a group of 12 ASU students from the Walker College of Business’s William R. Holland Fellows Program travelled to Asia to study business, swapping places with 12 Chinese students.
This time, the chancellors intended to establish a similar exchange program between Fudan University and ASU’s College of Health Sciences.
Sparks accompanied the chancellors on three subsequent visits in 2004, 2008, and 2010.
During these visits, when given the opportunity to explore Shanghai, Peacock remembered Sparks fully immersing himself in Chinese culture, trying new foods and participating in local customs. Whenever their travel plans went amiss and their airplane was delayed, throwing them off schedule, Sparks was never one to panic. “Richard always took things in stride and has always been calm under pressure,” Peacock said. “He’s just that kind of leader.”
Chancellor Thomas was particularly struck by Sparks’ insatiable thirst for knowledge, asking the medical staff in Shanghai all sorts of questions to learn about the differences between the United States’ and China’s approach to healthcare.
“Just like the economy’s gone global, we’re global healthcare,” Sparks said. “The more we can understand about world health, we can take the things other people have already learned [elsewhere] and apply them here [at ARHS], so we can help folks.”
For example, Sparks observed that doctors in Shanghai seemed more receptive than their American counterparts to treating patients with the most effective medicine, whether an Eastern herbal remedy or a Western synthetic drug. In the United States, however, Sparks feels Americans seem much more skeptical of Eastern medicinal treatments, preferring scientifically tested Western practices and medicines even if the Eastern approach would prove more effective.
“At ARHS, we should try to take a much more holistic approach to caring for the patient as they’re doing in China,” Sparks admitted, referencing ARHS’s Wellness Center with its mission to not only maintain wellness, but prevent illness through a full body workout.
While a partnership has been formed between ASU’s healthcare department and Fudan University, the economic recession has placed the exchange program temporarily on hold.
Yet, students don’t even need to travel overseas in order to gain a quality healthcare education that can serve ARHS well in the future.
Each year, over 650 students from ASU and 30 other colleges intern at ARHS, attracting students from a variety of disciplines, including social work, communication disorders, music therapy, art therapy, exercise science, health promotions, and other programs, Sparks said.
Sparks has always been agreeable and supportive of making ARHS facilities available to use as a training ground for college-age students.
One of the partnership programs between ASU and ARHS of which Sparks is particularly proud is the Appalachian Cardiopulmonary Rehabilitation Program (ACRP), where interns work directly with patients at ARHS’s Wellness Center under the guidance of ACRP Clinical Director Jeff Soukup, an ASU faculty member. Through ACRP, students get hands-on experience with ECG administration, which monitors heart rate and rhythms, exercise physiology testing, treadmill testing and respiratory efficiency. Since serving as director of ACRP beginning in July 2007, Soukup estimates the program has hosted 8-10 undergraduate and graduate interns each year. These internships are designed to increase students’ chances of becoming certified by the American College of Sports Medicine and entering into the clinical exercise field. Several of these students now hold jobs with ARHS.
In March 2012, ARHS pledged a nine-acre tract of land on the corner of State Farm and Deerfield roads for ASU to construct a permanent building for the College of Health Sciences, which will house parts of the college’s five academic departments.
The project has been fully endorsed by Dean of the College of Health Sciences Fred Whitt, as well as Peacock and Sparks.
“Richard Sparks has decided to partner with ASU on this project to help fulfill the dream of maintaining a strong healthcare focus for the High Country in the future,” Peacock said.
While building funds were originally expected to come from the state, due to the economic recession, Peacock announced, the university is now turning to public and private partnerships for financial backing.
As an alumnus of ASU, Sparks’ support of his alma mater extends far beyond his collaboration with ASU’s College of Health Sciences. He also serves on the advisory council for the John A. Walker College of Business, attends numerous student performing arts productions through the College of Fine and Applied Arts, and even attends ASU football games, spending time with ASU guests.
“ASU doesn’t have a finer friend than Richard Sparks and I don’t either,” Peacock said. “He’s always willing to give and do for other people, that’s just how he’s built.”
Sparks wishes to continue making partnerships between ARHS and higher education institutions a priority. After his retirement from ARHS, Sparks hopes to teach healthcare administration at ASU or a community college to pass on the knowledge he’s gained over the course of his healthcare career to the younger generation.
“The great lift I got in life I got was because I had the opportunity to get a quality education at ASU,” Sparks said, “so I would like to make sure that the people who follow me have the same opportunity through scholarships and educational programming.” An Eye to the Future
A leader, Dr. Thomas said, “is one who motivates and allocates resources in the face of insatiable demands.” Few can fit that definition better than Richard Sparks.
In every ARHS project he’s supervised, from the Cancer Center to the Wellness Center, Sparks has deliberately contemplated the best use of money, staff, equipment, construction materials, and healthcare knowledge to ensure that only the highest quality facilities and services are provided to best serve the needs of the patients. Simultaneously, he’s had to work to motivate other key players, from community funders to board members, to support his decisions. And very rarely does he ever let them down, nor do many projects ever fall through.
Largely, that’s because of Sparks’ character. “The character of an organization comes from the top, the guy in charge, he sets the tone,” Thomas said.
At his core, Sparks credits his father, who made his career as a policeman, for instilling in him basic values of acting with integrity and honesty.
Not forgetting these foundational virtues, Sparks has since created a “culture,” his own three part value system to which he holds all 1,500 employees accountable everyday: compassion, integrity, and striving for excellence.
By embodying these values himself, ultimately, Sparks’ gentle, laid back demeanor enables everyone, from his employees to his patients, to feel very comfortable approaching him about anything, positive or negative.
“The reason Richard is so successful is because he has surrounded himself with good people, people who are like-minded with him on major issues, such as ensuring quality healthcare for the community,” Thomas said. “He can relate to all people who work for him from the housekeeping staff and cafeteria personnel to the surgeons and head nurses.”
None of Sparks’ success would have been possible without the support, hard work and dedication of his staff. Years ago, ARHS used to honor its employees at anniversary dinners, awarding employees with pins in recognition of their number of years of service with the organization. Inevitably, at every ceremony, several employees would walk across the stage trembling to receive their pin and shake Sparks’ hand. At first, Sparks was puzzled by their nervous behavior, especially coming from professionally trained medical personnel who had witnessed more than their fill of blood and guts in the operating room. But it soon became apparent that, for many of these employees, this awards ceremony was one of the most meaningful moments of their lives, and that they were outwardly shaking with pride and exhilaration in gratitude for the opportunity to have selflessly cared for so many patients over the years.
“I don’t think there’s any greater privilege or reward that one could get than having the opportunity to touch someone’s life and hopefully make it better,” Sparks said.
Without question, these employees all take their jobs as seriously as Sparks values his.
So seriously that, Sparks admits, despite the tremendous amount of stress and responsibility he bears as CEO for the High Country’s leading healthcare provider, he places total confidence in his employees. So much confidence that he very rarely looses sleep worrying about day to day ARHS operations. Through heart procedures to routine checkups, Sparks rests easy knowing that his employees can always be trusted to act in the best interest of the patients.
“People come here because we treat them the way they want to be treated as a patient,” Sparks believes. “The staff views it as a privilege and opportunity to care for these patients.”
Yet, perhaps nothing in Sparks’ 35 year career has quite prepared him for the leadership skills he’ll soon have to demonstrate with the passage of Obama’s Affordable Health Care for America Act, signed into law in 2010, which will completely revolutionize the financing of healthcare. Under this Act, hospitals and medical facilities will be paid, not based on how many types of healthcare services are being offered and utilized, as has traditionally been the case, but on the quality of healthcare that is provided to the individual. Thus, each year, the hospital will be paid a lump sum of money, rather than payment for individual procedures.
“This period of change we’re about to go through in the next five years or so [under the new Health Care Act], far exceeds anything I’ve ever seen in my career,” Sparks said. “Making sure we stay on the right path and apply the resources in an effective, prudent way, so that we are, in the future, a healthier population is our biggest challenge now.”
In order to ensure that patients continue to receive quality healthcare, ARHS will have to begin brainstorming new, innovative ways to deliver healthcare.
For instance, building more specialized facilities, such as Alzheimer’s units, as well as offering more outpatient services to offset inpatient costs are likely options.
Undeniably, the next few years mark a rough road ahead, but it’s nothing that Sparks’ friends and supporters don’t think he can handle.
“In order to get everyone focused on healthy growth with an eye to the future, the mindset you have to have takes brains and heart. He’s got both,” Thomas said. “If you’ve got someone who really believes like he believes, great things can happen.”
Not ones to disappoint, Sparks and his board are once again working hard to secure funding to build the newest addition to ARHS – a 85,000-square-foot post acute facility in Blowing Rock, which will ultimately replace the old Blowing Rock Hospital when construction is complete in the fall of 2014.
Up until his retirement (which is still a ways off, Sparks said), more than anything else, Sparks hopes to remain true to the mission of ARHS, which first began with the Watauga Hospital in 1938: to build a regional healthcare system that results in healthier individuals and enhanced quality of life. And you better believe Sparks will uphold this mission until the end, but he admits he can’t do it alone.
“The things that were successful [during the last 35 years with ARHS] were not due to me, but it was the opportunity that other people gave me here [that has made ARHS grow],” Sparks said. “To work with such wonderful, skilled people on the Board of Trustees, doctors on the medical staff, employees, and people of the community who have been supportive, that’s what’s made these last 35 years so remarkable. And hopefully, some of these accomplishments have made people’s lives better.”