Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Andrew Byrd of Caton Merchant House: A Good Man Down

I would call what is going on at the Caton Merchant House assisted living facility in Manassas a tempest in a teapot except that while there is a storm going on, the matter is not tea-pot sized by any means and it is far too important to be thought of as small  It’s more the size of a can of worms, which Novant, the parent company of CMH (as I like to abbreviate it) has opened up for all of us.

My father has lived at CMH since late October of last year. We were most impressed with the facility out of the six or seven we considered. Everyone who had a relative or friend in the big building that sits at the corner of Sudley Road and Portner Avenue had a universally high opinion of the place, praising the kindness and competence of the staff, the level of care, the quality of the food and facilities. It has what my generation would call a good vibe.CMH was a quiet, calm, well-managed safe, warm and welcoming place. It didn’t feel institutional. It felt more like home.
My dad and I have gotten to know and love so many of the staff and residents and their families over these short few months, treasuring their broad smiles, cheery greetings and genuine interest in others.  They are Pam, Becky, Darlene, Mabel, Brenda, Rudy, and others I can’t put names with, the dining room workers, the nurses and CNA’s, the housekeepers, the maintenance guy who wears shorts all year round (it’s warm at CMH all the time in  more ways than one!) And there are the residents, friendly (most of them!) and content (most of the time!) and families, familiar to many of us. There are so many from our church that we say we could have a business meeting there! The residents look out for each other as well, I believe influenced by the behavior and attitudes of the staff, volunteers and visitors. I recently saw an elderly gentleman carefully guide  a lady with memory problems back to her room when she couldn’t remember how to get back on her own. It was beyond touching.

Such a warm, welcoming and well-run place is the result of not only the efforts of volunteers and staff: it’s a matter of leadership. And for the past several years that incredible and caring leadership has been provided by Andrew Byrd. We knew of Andrew and his formidable reputation not only as a caring and competent administrator but also as a person whose life was inextricably tied up with CMH. We didn’t know Andrew that well personally, but he was clearly everything that we had heard about him. 

Last week residents of CMH received the following letter from Melissa Robson, president of Prince William Hospital and COO of the Northern Virginia Market, whatever that is. I don’t know Ms. Robson and assume she is a nice person, but this letter was about the coldest piece of corporate rhetoric I have ever experienced:
Dear Resident and Family members:
I am informing you of a leadership change at CMH. Andrew Byrd, executive director, is no longer with our assisted living facility.
The rest of the letter contained some platitudes masquerading as information and named Mandy Dickinson as interim executive director. Mandy is an exceptionally competent and personable young lady and CMH is fortunate to have her but we all know she is an interim figure. Her successor will have his or her work cut out  for him or her.
The letter continues further down the page,
We look forward to continuing to serve your needs and provide you with a family atmosphere in our Eden Alternative facility (whatever that is).
Good luck on continuing the family atmosphere after a heartlessly letting the person most responsible for the family atmosphere go.

The reaction to this announcement has been strong and loud and long. On Sunday, Ellie Marshall, an angel who has helped dozens of the elderly in our community, was clearly upset and asked me to write a letter to the local newspaper protesting this decision. Ellie understands how important Andrew was to CMH and the importance of CMH not only to its residents and their families but also to our community as a place that provides for the needs and desires of all its residents, from cradle to grave.

Ellie was not alone in her disappointment and anger at Andrew’s dismissal. I talked yesterday with Mrs. Mae Merchant, whose husband Caton was a leading light in the community for many years before his death. The assisted living facility of course bears his name. Caton was instrumental in the startup of Prince William Hospital in 1964 and generously supported numerous philanthropic, community and religious initiatives through the years. The chapel at Manassas Baptist Church was a gift of his family following his death, as was Merchant Hall at the Hylton Center for the Performing Arts on the Prince William Campus of George Mason University.

Mrs. Merchant saw the loss of Andrew as “devastating to the City of Manassas and to the older members of the community and their families.” “Andrew,” she continued, “was wonderful. He loved, cared for and respected the people in the facility and those with whom he worked. A gem of a man, he was unselfish and treated all those at CMH with tender loving care.  He is one of a kind.”
Mrs. Merchant noted that her family tried to find a suitable place for her sister and first tried two highly respected nursing homes in Washington, D.C. before bringing her to CMH. “There was a difference there,” she remembered. “There she, as is the case with so many others, was at home.”

Andrew, ever community-oriented, worked with the Hearth and Home Senior Adult Day Care facility and assisted them at numerous points.

Mrs. Merchant was clearly distressed at the turn of events and feared that the change of leadership would change CMH for the worse and impact not only the residents and their families but the community as a whole.

These sentiments were echoed by the Rev. Robert Cilinski, Pastor of All Saints Roman Catholic Church in town. I encountered him in the parking lot of CMH with his father, a resident of the facility.I had not met him before, but I introduced myself and he quickly and graciously shared his thoughts and feelings.  He called Andrew’s departure “a tremendous loss” and observed that CMH was home for so many who don’t need that atmosphere to be threatened or changed. He wanted to make sure that Andrew was thanked for his years of exceptional service and that is important, but unfortunately, I believe thanking Andrew will be difficult for most since he departed so abruptly.
No one is talking about the reasons for Andrew’s departure, citing privacy concerns that are no doubt valid. In my experience these dismissals are rarely voluntary, but we simply don’t know. As a result we are left with speculation, rumor and gossip. It’s an unfortunate situation for all involved with no winners that I can see.

A source for this post attributed Andrew’s leaving to a conflict of culture between Andrew’s management style and philosophy and that of Novant. In a sense Novant won that round of the conflict, but I don’t think that truly there are any winners in the situation. We all—residents, families, members of the community and Andrew himself—are diminished by Novant’s decision. I hope and pray that we can learn from what has happened, stand up and ask the right hard questions, and look to learn from what has happened and work to ensure that a good man never goes down like this again.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for an excellent article Mr Verner. My experience after living at Caton Merchant House for 10 years as a resident was Andrew Bryd worked very long and hard to help the elderly of our community to the best of his abilty and endurance and sometimes beyond his endurance, he often looked tired and the staff would beg him to go home and rest. I asked him in 2001 why at his young age was he doing this demanding job? He was only 26 years old, and he told me when he was young someone he loved very much was mistreated in a home such as CMH and he wanted to see that each and every resident was treated the best possible. That this was his mission in life he added. He did do this and the more the resident needed him the more attention they received from him and his staff. I found out later the person who was mistreated he loved when he was young in an adult facility was his grandmother some CMH staff members told me. Sandy Mooney Boletchek Note... My thoughts and prayers are with J. Andrew Byrd... I will always remember this outstanding young man fresh faced and filled with the mission to care and protect the elderly.