Ottawa — A native of Barry`s Bay who has earned the reputation as one of the leading healthcare administrators in the province has been recognized for his ongoing work with the highest civilian honour the Canadian government can bestow on an individual.
Dr. Jack Kitts, president and cChief eExecutive oOfficer (CEO) of The Ottawa Hospital, was one of 40 individuals who received the prestigious Order of Canada medal from Her Excellency, Governor General Julie Payette, at a ceremony at Rideau Hall on Thursday, March 14. He is the second eldest child and oldest of six sons of Joan (Valiquette) and the late Charlie Kitts, and he was both humbled and grateful he had been selected to receive the honour.
The Leader had an opportunity to sit down with the 63-year-old at his Ottawa home on Saturday where he reflected on his life and career. He grew up in Barry‘s where his father, Charlie, owned Kitts’ Red and White store. His elementary education was done between St. Joseph’s, St. Mary’s and St. John Bosco Catholic Schools. His then attended Madawaska Valley District High School (MVDHS) where he completed his Grade 12.
As a youth, he worked in his father’s store, which opened in 1954. His mother sold the business in 1973, two years after his father’s passing on June 25, 1971, at age 48.
“I can’t remember the exact age, but I know it was very young because the Red and White hat was way too big on me, and the apron that you wore, was way too big, but I wore them anyway,” he said. “I packed groceries, carried them out, and filled shelves. I was probably 10.”
His older sister, Julie, was a cashier. Other siblings, Colleen, Chuck, and Jim, also helped out while his younger siblings Bobby, Martin, Mary Ann and Bill were too young.
Dr. Kitts noted a career in healthcare was not in his plans initially, but thanks to some good insight from a member of the MVDHS staff, he altered his plans, saying he was unsure it was the right choice for him.
“In Grade 11, my guidance counsellor, Bill Houle, called me in one day and asked me what my plans were for the future.”
Like many young students, he really had none at that point, but he felt relatively confident he wanted to stay in Barry’s Bay.
“I was 17 and the drinking age was 18, and I was going to work at the liquor store in Barry‘s Bay when I turned 18,” he said. “We were neighbours with the manager and he had offered me a job, so that was in my mind.”
Mr. Houle persisted and Dr. Kitts answered that he’d probably be a lawyer, with Mr. Houle questioning his decision.
“I said I didn’t know why, but it seemed like a good thing to do,” he recalled.
The guidance counsellor pointed out the courses he was taking were heavily weighted on the sciences, which did not pair well with the lawyer choice.
“He told me I’d be more inclined to be a scientist, professor of biology, veterinarian, dentist, doctor. I told him if I had to pick one of those, I’d probably be a doctor.
“I think everybody admired (Dr.) Andy Chapeskie,” he added. “He built his own airplanes, he flew into the park, he hunted, he fished, he was like the perfect country doctor,” he added. “So I thought that wouldn’t be a bad life.”
He said Mr. Houle not only planted the spark that day, he also called Dr. Kitts’ mother, and told her he felt her son certainly had the potential to be a doctor.
“But she’d have to get me to work beyond my current level because I was an under-achiever and that I could do better,” he said.
One of Mr. Houle’s suggestions was the young man attend the University of Ottawa (U of O) for his Grade 13 studies.
“I didn’t want to leave Barry‘s Bay. I had a summer job at the liquor store once I turned 18, so I’d do Grade 13 in the Bay.”
Although still unwilling, he filled out the application for Ottawa with Mr. Houle’s assistance, but was not disappointed when he learned he had not been successful. However, he was on a waiting list.
“But by mid-August, I got a note saying I’d been accepted and I had to go down after the long weekend to register. It was called Q-year or Qualifying Year, qualifying you for university.
“That was my trip to Ottawa and I never looked back,” he added.
Dr. Kitts regrets he never took the opportunity to tell Mr. Houle just how instrumental he was in his decision, noting when he was invited to be a keynote speaker at a function of the Madawaska Valley Lions Club almost 20 years ago, he wanted to use that opportunity to thank him publicly and acknowledge how Barry’s Bay had helped him go on to a successful career.
“Sadly, a week or two before the meeting, he died of a heart attack. So I feel I kind of missed the opportunity to really publicly thank him, because he and mom were instrumental . . .”
Felt Like He Was Shirking Responsibilities
As the oldest male in the family after his father died and with his mother forced to raise nine children on her own, Dr. Kitts had a very compelling reason to not want to leave the community.
“From my perspective, being the oldest of six boys, I really didn’t want to leave. I felt like maybe I was the man of the house. I felt I could help, and I had a job opportunity.
“The job at the liquor store was good and I thought I’d aspire to be the manager,” he added. “So it was with a lot of trepidation, anxiety and concern that I left because I felt I was too young and had a much better role in Barry’s Bay.”
Asked if his mom was supportive, he replied, “She pushed me.”
He returned to Barry’s Bay on the bus every weekend for three years and his mother would push him to return to the city each time.
“I thought it was important that he look after himself,” his mother said. “I think every one of the kids got a chance to do that.”
Dr. Kitts said with a spouse and three kids of his own, when he looks back now on his mother’s situation, he can truly appreciate how difficult it must have been to raise nine children on her own, all under 16, after his father died.
“That was enough, but to then push us out because she knew eventually we all had to look after ourselves . . . So looking back, it was really strong foresight and leadership on her part.”
When asked if he or any of his siblings had considered running the business, he said they were all just too young at the time, so his mom sold it in 1973.
Nothing Is Impossible
Once he decided he would become a doctor, he had no idea how competitive a career medicine is. In his first day of pre-med at the U of O, his professor in the class of 300 noted there was another 300 in the French version of the program who would be part of 4,000 applicants to the U of O for 85 positions.
“He told us to go home and think about what else we could do because most of us would not make it.”
While that may have deterred some, if not many, it did not affect Dr. Kitts that way.
“I just never believed that I couldn’t,” he remarked. “I was thinking I’d just work hard and do it. “And now I tell that to young medical students, don’t let anyone tell you that it’s almost impossible, because it is possible,” he added. “You just have to believe.”
He admitted growing up in a small, rural community, he always felt somehow inferior to the “city” people.
“They were smarter, they knew more, they were exposed to more, and better at everything. We were the country guys aspiring to be the best we could, and I’m not sure when that left me, but I learned we can be as smart.
“That could have been a huge detraction because I was surrounded by thousands of city people. But no matter where you come from, if you work hard and put your mind to it, you probably can do it.”
He admitted it was hard to stay focused on his studies the first year knowing the situation at home, and he couldn’t wait for Friday to come to go home. He dreaded Sundays when he had to return to the city. However, by the second year, his younger sister, Colleen, was also in Ottawa pursuing nursing and the following year, younger brother, Chuck joined them.
“So after that, it got a little easier,” he said.
Just The Start of Learning
Dr. Kitts’ journey involved many years of preparation that resulted in his first job at the Civic Hospital in 1988.
“There was three years of pre-med (including his Q-Year), then four Years of medical school, then a year of internship, which then I was officially a doctor. Then I did a three-year tour of duty with the Armed Forces, three years specializing (anesthesiologist) and a year in San Francisco.”
Like his Q-Year, his original application for medical school was turned down, but was later successful.
“I’ve told people the hardest thing about medical school is getting in. Once in, you’re now into something you’re really looking forward to, so it went by really quickly.”
His internship was done at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto, which was not only good for him professionally, but personally as well.
“The best thing that happened to me in my internship was I met my wife. She was a nurse at the hospital where I interned and we met part way through the year when I came and we got married just before I left. That was 30 years ago.”
Dr. Kitts noted his wife, Lian, was born and raised in Italy and came to Canada when she was six or seven years old and settled in Toronto. The couple’s three children all reside in Ottawa.
In his internship, he learned all the basics of healthcare and was a family doctor at that point. After serving in that capacity with the Armed Forces at the National Defence facility in Ottawa, he decided to specialize in anesthesia.
“I liked the fact anesthesiologists were doing critical care. I like doing critical care as opposed to the general family practice.”
For some reason, the majority of the best anesthesiologists in the world, including Dr. Ron Miller, were based in San Francisco then, so he went there for one year to get his fellowship. When asked how he was able to manage all his studies financially, he explained his summer job and student loans and grants sustained him through pre-med but he knew that was not sustainable through med school and internship.
“So I joined the military and they paid my way through med school and internship. I never set out to join the military, but at the time, it was pretty much essential.
“And looking back, it’s one of the best things I’ve done.”
Merger Occurred In 1998
Ten years after joining the staff at the Civic, it merged with the General, Montfort, Riverside, Grace and other programs to become The Ottawa Hospital.
“Today, The Ottawa Hospital has a budget of $1.2 billion,” he explained. “It has 1,200 beds, an emergency department that serves almost 200,000 people a year, and we do about 60,000 or 70,000 surgeries a year.
“There are 4,500 nurses, 1,400 doctors, and all in there are about 12,000 employees,” he added. “We also have 1,000 doctors in training at any given time.”
During the merger, he took his MBA (Masters of Business Administration), because he was in some leadership roles.
Interest In Administration
During his time in San Fan Francisco, they were developing the first Pre-operative Assessment Clinic, so when he returned to Ottawa, he helped develop the first one in Canada at the Civic and he was named Medical Director of the unit. By 1994, the unit was opened and by 1995, Dr. Kitts was named Chief of Anesthesia.
During that period, he worked closely with the administration. Then, when the merger happened, he was asked to lead the doctors through that process.
“The early days of the merger were very difficult, there was lot of chaos and a lot of concern,” he shared.
By 2001, the government of the day, had fired the then board of the hospital and hired a supervisor, Dennis Timbrell, a former Minister of Health, who later fired the then CEO.
“He asked me to be the interim CEO for four months while he did a search,” Dr. Kitts said. “After his search, he asked me to be the permanent one. Come October, that will be 18 years ago.”
He admitted he never felt he was the best choice for the different leadership roles, feeling there were better qualified people.
“But as it turns out, I did okay.”
Initially, he thought after the dismissal of the CEO, he was the Vice-President of Medical Affairs at the time, and most of his colleagues thought they might be let go as well.
Surprisingly, he was not let go but offered the job as CEO, which he initially rejected. Told to take 24 hours to think about it, he ran the idea past his wife, but during their conversation, they saw a news broadcast projecting that an associate of his would be the new CEO.
“So I thought because I had said no, he asked someone else,” he said.
The next day, however, Mr. Timbrell asked him again, and he again said no, feeling he was under-qualified compared to some other potential candidates.
“I told him I was a rookie and it was a big hospital that required a lot of experience. It needed a leader, who was seasoned and experienced.
“And my fear was that when they announced me, everyone on the senior team would lose hope that I couldn’t do it. But he said he’d done his homework.”
Mr. Timbrell explained how he had spent three months on the search and had talked to many people in the hospital and they told him unanimously Dr. Kitts could do it. He again ran the idea by his wife, and she gave him some very valuable advice.
“She said, ‘Jack, if you’re not willing to lead it, are you willing to follow whoever does? And I thought, no, if I had the chance I know where I’d like to take it, and I may not like where someone else does.”
So he accepted the position and has gone on to national and international recognition for his work. Once he accepted the position, he quickly assembled a team of his colleagues he felt were better suited for the role.
“So I had the best of both worlds. I had people on my team, in their expertise, who were far better than I ever could be. So I had a team full of experts in their field and my role was really to keep them working well together, like the coach of a team.
“So I feel very fortunate I was able to coach a really good team in the beginning and over the course of 18 years. I’ve had a few teams and the team I have right now is absolutely exceptional.”
And while he has a high-performing team at work, he could not have succeeded without the support of his mother and his wife and family.
“If you don’t have the support at home, you’re toast. Both teams are extremely valuable, but when the chips are down and you’re feeling a little bit lonely at the top, it‘s your home team that picks you up.”
He said it‘s been crucial that as a nurse, his wife understands the demands of the career, like the shift work and being on-call.
“If you don’t know what you’re getting into, it can probably be difficult on a marriage. I think it’s really important that if you’re not from the profession, you at least find a way to understand, because it‘s a very different lifestyle.”
The couple have three children, Kara, 36, who has her Masters in Health Administration, was a manger at St. Michael’s Hospital (Toronto) and currently works for KPMG’s health consulting sector in Ottawa; Bianca, 33, who has her Masters In Animal Welfare and is currently focusing on raising her family; and Bryson, 32, a respiratory therapist working at the Ottawa Heart Institute.
Last Thursday, Dr. Kitts was accompanied by his wife and children to the investiture at Rideau Hall where he received his medal from Governor General Payette. The awards had actually been announced in June 2018 but the official ceremony was just last week.
The citation Dr. Kitts received at his investiture articulates why he was selected for the honour. “Jack Kitts has had a distinguished career as an anesthesiologist and health care leader,” it reads. “As president and CEO of the Ottawa Hospital for nearly 20 years, he has successfully guided one of Canada’s largest teaching and research hospitals by developing and implementing unique, patient-centred care.
“He has also been influential in creating a more integrated health care system in Ontario,” it continues. “A leader among colleagues and a mentor to young physicians, he is widely recognized as a champion of better health practices across the country.”
The Ottawa Hospital started planning to build a new Civic facility in 2004 and the land was acquired from the National Capital Commission at $1 a year for 99 years. The site is not directly across from the current Civic site, but on the opposite side of Carling Avenue, down by Preston Street. The estimated price of the project is $2.5 billion.
“I think it’s going to be an incredible hospital,” he said.
He originally hoped it would be completed by 2020, adding both the federal and provincial governments agree a new hospital is needed in the city and they will support it. Officials are currently in the second of five phases of the planning, and are now hoping for a 2028-2029 opening.
“I know that I won’t work in it. I hope I don’t need it for other reasons, but if I do, I will feel very confident that Ottawa has 21st century health care because of its modern hospital.” He said it has been a very interesting process, adding he will be happy to attend but as he is turning 65 in 2020, he does not foresee himself attending the opening as CEO of The Ottawa Hospital.