ST. PETERSBURG — It's 8:30 a.m., and pediatrician Jonathan Ellen is chatting with his department leaders, describing his vision for All Children's Hospital. He may be the hospital's interim president, but in a rumpled yellow shirt and black fleece vest, he looks more the part of genial professor.
"There's no podium. He's sitting in a chair, sipping coffee," notes Susan Collins, head of the cardiac department. "That's a different approach."
At 9 a.m., he listens in on a presentation about ways to boost efficiency. Then comes a 10 a.m. videoconference with officials at Johns Hopkins, the prestigious health system that now owns All Children's, to figure out which of its faculty will be visiting St. Petersburg next.
And at 11, he's sitting on a shiny plastic pelican for a photograph, looking entirely unself-conscious as a curious child walks by.
"That's the pediatrician in me," he said of his willingness to try out the toys.
Things are clearly different at All Children's, a place once run by businessmen, not physicians. At the center of the transformation is Ellen, 50, who spent the first 11 months of the All Children's-Johns Hopkins partnership as the hospital's physician-in-chief before assuming the top job on an interim basis Feb. 29.
Ellen has made it clear he wants the job permanently. Already, his collaborative style and physician background have earned him the respect of local doctors and nurses as well as hospital trustees and community leaders.
"He has laid a lot of groundwork," said Dr. Gregory Hahn, a private practice orthopedic surgeon and former chief of the medical staff at the hospital.
"I think he's the right man for the job."
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Ellen, a 13-year Hopkins veteran, was sent to St. Petersburg with instructions to build a world-class academic and research program.
He has made key hires, most recently a director of research. He has fast-tracked efforts for a new Hopkins pediatric residency program in Florida, which could begin in 2014, while also continuing the University of South Florida's residency at All Children's.
He has been working with USF, where he already had contacts, including Dr. Patricia Emmanuel, the new chairwoman of pediatrics. Years ago, the two worked together on research into HIV in adolescents.
Among the steady stream of visitors from Baltimore is Dr. Paul Colombani, Hopkins' chief of pediatric surgery, who spends one week each month here mentoring and consulting with surgeons.
Patients here have benefited directly from the Hopkins-All Children's merger, with Ellen helping physicians in Baltimore and St. Petersburg work together on particularly challenging cases.
Ellen's predecessor, Gary Carnes, had led All Children's since 2001, building the hospital's sparkling new facility, shepherding the long process of joining the Hopkins family, and navigating the increasingly tough task of procuring Medicaid funding, which pays for most of the young patients' care.
Ellen praises Carnes for his accomplishments. He also says it was time to "re-engage" the medical staff, some of whom work for the hospital, some for USF, and many in private practice with privileges at the hospital.
When the Hopkins news broke, there was some apprehension that there would be a wholesale change in how medicine is practiced at All Children's, and that local preferences might not be honored. Ellen has worked hard to defuse such concerns by seeking out doctors in a way that Carnes did not.
"I think Gary grew up in a more corporate world; I grew up in an academic world," Ellen said. "Because of that, I probably am the bigger collaborator."
Collins, the nurse who directs the heart center, says she met with Ellen even before he came to the hospital full time.
"I walked away feeling like he had our best interests at heart," she said.
"Gary's style was more hands-on everything. Jon Ellen is more of a consensus builder," said Hahn, the orthopedic surgeon. "Gary, not being a physician, had a harder time understanding our perspective."
Dr. Paul Danielson, head of general surgery, says Ellen quickly allayed concerns that All Children's would be turned into Hopkins with palm trees.
"I got the sense that Jonathan's approach was to come in and get to know everybody, and then convince them as a whole to where we're going.''
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Ellen already had built a strong academic program at Hopkins' Bayview Medical Center in Baltimore when talks began with All Children's, making him a clear choice to lead the effort.
"He's one of the best people I recruited," said Dr. George Dover, pediatrician-in-chief at Hopkins' Children's Center. "He is visionary … a natural leader."
Before joining Hopkins in 1999, Ellen worked at the University of California at San Francisco, with fellowships in adolescent medicine and sexually transmitted diseases.
"I have always wanted to be a physician. I was also always motivated by social justice issues," said Ellen, the child of a physician father and social-worker mother.
He sees his work in adolescent medicine, with research into racial and ethnic disparities on issues such as HIV, as "the way I expressed both parents."
Dover says Ellen has exceeded his expectations in his first year at All Children's.
"He quickly created an alignment with physicians, hospital administration, the foundation and trustees, which in my mind is quite remarkable," he said.
"He's done a really good job," agrees Jack Kirkland, chairman of the All Children's Board of Trustees. "He's a very dynamic guy, very personable."
Kirkland, a certified public accountant, is one of 10 members of a committee searching for All Children's next president — which will most likely be a physician.
"If you're going to be truly excellent as an academic hospital, you have to serve three missions at one time,'' Dover said.
"There's the clinical mission, the education mission and research mission," he said. "That's not something a businessman can do well."
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Ellen says he loves St. Petersburg and living on the water. He enjoys his 1.5-mile commute from his rented condominium near the Renaissance Vinoy Resort, especially compared with spending more than an hour on the Washington Beltway.
"Now, my biggest traffic worry is if there's a horse and buggy in front of me," he said of the tourist-season fixtures of downtown.
His days often start with 6:30 a.m. meetings, and sometimes end with dinners set up by the hospital's foundation. He has even overcome his necktie aversion — stemming from his prep school days at Episcopal Academy in Philadelphia — and dresses up for events like the recent Suncoaster's Ball. He and his wife, lawyer Margaret de Lisser, rubbed elbows there with community leaders like St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster.
"I do own two suits," Ellen joked. "I just bought them."
In his spare time he might go for a run, cook a nice meal or take in a baseball game. He's a Phillies fan, but now he's following the Rays, too.
Should he get the permanent post, Ellen said he would "buy a home, set it up and gradually get everyone moved down." He and his wife have a teenage son and a daughter who starts college in the fall.
He has plainly got boosters in Baltimore and St. Petersburg.
"Jonathan and I jointly created a vision for what All Children's can be," Hopkins' Dover said. "I can't think of anyone who could more adequately carry that out."
Said Danielson, the All Children's chief of surgery: "When I see Jonathan Ellen, I don't see him as a Hopkins guy. I see him as an All Children's guy."
Richard Martin can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3322.