PERSPECTIVE: Life Lessons Grown in Connecticut Continue to Resonate

by Keith Hovan I never imagined delivering a commencement speech. In fact I don’t remember any of the speeches from any of the commencements that I have ever attended. So I’m not expecting any of you to remember this one either.  Given that this speech is unlikely to be memorable I will attempt to make it mercifully brief.

In early 1962, shortly after I was born, someone, my birth mother I suspect, took a look at me ... and decided that she didn’t want me .... I was discarded, as I later learned.  Found in a dumpster.

It’s true.  That really happened.

I always say it’s because I was an ugly baby. I was born with a birth defect that twisted my feet out of shape — club foot. I have scoliosis, which still makes my left leg shorter than my right — although nowadays I can hide it pretty well. And I have a condition that formed my chest a little differently than most people’s.

Despite all that, someone found me .... Someone rescued me.

Soon I landed in the home of Andrew and Eleanor Hovan, the second-generation Russian immigrants who adopted me. Two wonderful, loving people who thought I was worthy of being called ... son. They gave me the start in life that I was nearly denied.

From that simple, loving act flowed opportunities that I never could have imagined — including right here, right now — speaking to you, the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth Class of 2018.

I am humbled to be on this podium because I know the sacrifices you made to achieve the advanced degree that you will receive today. Very likely, your parents, your spouse or partner and your children made sacrifices, too. The late nights you spent alone, studying after work. The weekend fun you forfeited. The fellowship, family time and sleep you denied yourself. The children’s plays, art shows and games you might have missed.

I know because my family and I made the same sacrifices. And ... because I am ahead of you on the journey you are about to start, I’ll share some lessons that you might consider taking with you.

Lesson No. 1: As my story so far might illustrate to you — it doesn’t matter where you start in life. It matters what you do with your life.

I grew up in a blue collar home in Connecticut, where my father — a veteran of the terrible Pacific island battle on Okinawa in World War II — worked long hours at Schick Safety Razor. He usually walked around with holes in his shoes and made $17,000 in his best year. But we always had food on the table and my parents showed my brother and I what it meant to work hard for everything they ever got.

To make money as a teenager, I took a job at a garden store. One of the managers there, a man named Richard, got to know me and thought I could go in one of two ways — very good ... or very bad. So he decided to give me a nudge in the right direction by exposing me to some career options.

He arranged for me to shadow a lawyer in court. I didn’t see myself practicing law. I spent time with a trader on Wall Street, actually down on the floor. Again, it wasn’t for me. This process was repeated several times. But I never made a real connection. (I think Richard began getting worried).

Then he had me spend time with a nurse anesthetist from Yale New Haven Hospital. It was then that I could see my future. Suddenly, my expectations to spend my working life as a landscaper were replaced by something much more powerful — they were replaced by a dream. I wanted to be like those nurses who were helping people in a way that was real, direct and hands on.

Lesson No. 2: Look for mentors in unexpected places, and then allow yourself to be mentored.

Others may see potential that you don’t recognize in yourself, as Richard, that garden shop manager, saw in me.

I enrolled in college to study nursing. My parents had saved enough money to pay for my first semester, but the rest of my education was on me. So I worked nights as an emergency room tech and studied during the day.  By the time I graduated — the first in my family to earn a college degree — I had a young son, Nicholas.

I decided that I could make more and have more significant impact with an advanced degree. Maybe you yourselves made a similar calculation. I studied for a master’s in nursing with an emphasis in management, with the goal of becoming a chief nursing officer at a hospital.  I also completed work towards an MBA, and while I studied, I always worked full time to support my son.

Lesson No. 3: This one is from my mom — my mother said to me over and over again — what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

I started my healthcare management career in the busy emergency department at Bridgeport Hospital in Connecticut. Three years after I arrived as an RN, nearly the entire nursing leadership team in the emergency department resigned or retired. Much to my surprise, I was chosen to lead the department. Even though I was only 24 years old. I had responsibility for the management of the state’s fourth busiest emergency department and trauma center.

This was the 1980s, when hospitals were suffering a severe nursing shortage.

That made it easy to work clinical shifts at other hospitals at night. The money came in handy, of course. But as important, the extra work provided me with an incredible learning opportunity. I chose to work at medical centers where I could get ideas to bring back to my department and make it a better place for patients, families and my staff.

Lesson No. 4: Your education does not end with this degree. Opportunities to learn will present themselves throughout your career. They are a gift. Learn to recognize them and take advantage of them.

And yet, as I progressed through my career, I noticed that no matter how much I learned, I alone would never know enough. Healthcare is humbling in that way. The pace of progress is often dizzying. Diseases that were once incurable, can now be cured. Ailments that once had no treatments can now be treated.

I will never forget being in the Cath lab to observe a first in Connecticut. It was the middle of the night and I watched a cardiologist, Dr. Joseph Babb, thread a wire through a clot in the coronary artery of a dying patient.  That was followed by a drug called Streptokinase, which was infused directly into the heart. Miraculously, blood started flowing again and a dying patient was snatched from death.

And that was just the start of a career witnessing firsts. Procedures that once lasted many hours, requiring long incisions and long recoveries, can today be completed in a fraction of the time, with far smaller incisions and faster and healthier recoveries.  Even now, 30-plus years into my career, I am awed by what medicine can do. (...)

So that leads to Lesson No. 5, perhaps one of the most important that I will share today. You cannot do this alone. Surround yourself with good people.

People who are smarter than you in their areas of expertise. Individuals who share your values and the values of your organization. Individuals who share your compassion and passion for the work you do.  Success in your career will demand constant learning. And many people around you will have something to teach — not just those who run conferences, teach formal classes or who have the highest academic degrees or professional standing.

The success of the organization I work for — Southcoast Health — depends not just on the amazing doctors who bring us the latest that medicine has to offer. It depends on all 7,500 of our employees.  You know... I work with some incredibly smart people. Physician scientists, information technology experts, enterprise risk managers, executives of all types. But some of the best advice I receive is from our staff who are on the front lines.

There is a security guard at Southcoast Health named Frank. Frank — like many of our staff — has my personal cellphone number ... and he’s not shy about using it. From time to time Frank will call, though he will usually text, and say ... brother Hovan ... we need to talk. We’ll meet for breakfast at the Village Cafe in Dartmouth (Great spicy hash) and we will talk as two people — equals. He will let me know what he thinks about a decision or an issue — it will either reinforce a plan that we might have been formulating and accelerate it ... or might cause me to completely rethink a strategy.  Then again... it might just be two guys having breakfast trading stories about our families.

Lesson No. 6: Practice humility.

Everyone — everyone — is deserving of your respect.  Whether you are a department head, a unit leader or a CEO, you will always have a lot to learn. And lessons come from unexpected places.

After you receive your diploma today and — I hope — do a little celebrating, you may be moving on to a new job or promotion. Maybe you will seek work in a new field. And I’ll bet that one or two of you will go right from this ceremony to work at a job.

Whatever your plans, your education will afford you a chance at a privileged life — one with satisfying work, financial rewards, and stability and progress for your family.

But it also will bring you new ways to apply your skills and expertise. You may already have discovered that your professional responsibilities don’t end at the office door. Your learning and your work experience will lend you new insights that you are obligated to share with your communities and your larger professional network.

In my career, it became clear to me that healthcare doesn’t happen within the confines of a hospital or a clinic. Good health is linked to economic opportunity. To decent housing. To strong schools. To well-stocked grocery stores close to home. And to governments and societies that recognize problems like the scourge of opioid addiction and find ways to address them.  For that reason, I commit time to local, statewide and national organizations that are devoted to strengthening communities — as well as healthcare.

Lesson No. 7: Now this may be a hard one to hear but here it goes — today is not just about you and your career.

It is easy to turn a blind eye to the issues that challenge our communities. But I urge you to think about the concept of community and what it means to really care.

Think about how you will contribute.

We live in a challenging time. The political divide is as wide as it has ever been in our country, with strident and angry public discourse. The very technologies that join us and make our lives easier, also bring us false information that confuses us. Children feel unsafe in their schools. People’s differences — race, ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation — make them targets for discrimination and mistreatment, rather than valued for the richness they provide.

Terrorist attacks, war and warlike posturing. There is a lot going on in our world that is broken.

Fixing what is broken starts in our communities — the communities that you will enter with your new education. I urge you, I beg you, to use what you have learned to help solve problems and to contribute to the social good.  The decisions you made in the past brought you to this day. Your decisions going forward will write the narrative of your personal future. They also will contribute to the narrative of our collective future.

You are our hope.

Oh...And one final lesson — say thanks.

Say thanks to your friends and loved ones who stuck with you and helped make this day possible. Thanks to your professors and fellow students at UMass Dartmouth. And thanks to the university itself. An institution devoted to pursuing and sharing knowledge is a vital good for a community and our nation, and UMass Dartmouth brings countless benefits to our region.

As a man who started life in a trash can, who as a teenager had friends who nicknamed him “Garbage Can Hovan” — perhaps a bonus lesson is, be careful what stories you share. .... I have lots to be thankful for — especially my loving wife Erin and my children including my daughter Reya who is here today.

We all have reasons to be thankful.


Keith Hovan, President and CEO of Southcoast Health, grew up in Connecticut, attended Sacred Heart University and began his career at Bridgeport Hospital.  He was appointed President and CEO of Southcoast Hospitals Group, Inc. in 2008 and in 2011 as President and CEO of Southcoast Health System, Inc.  Previously, he served as Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer at Danbury Health System. He delivered the commencement address this month at University of Massachusetts – Dartmouth.   Southcoast Health is a not-for-profit, community-based health system with multiple access points, offering an integrated continuum of health services throughout southeastern Massachusetts and Rhode Island.