Brevard Healthcare Visionary, Esteemed Community Leader Larry Garrison Passes Away June 4 at Age 70
By Dr. James V. Palermo // June 7, 2020
Co-founded Health First, a comprehensive healthcare system ranked among nation's best
By Dr. James V. Palermo
BREVARD COUNTY • COCOA BEACH, FLORIDA – Larry Garrison lost his courageous two and a half year battle with cancer on Thursday, June 4, and the Space Coast lost one of its most esteemed community leaders and healthcare visionaries.
Although I believe it is futile to try to put a frame around and accurately capture in a few paragraphs the character and life’s achievements of a man like Larry, who touched so many lives both professionally and personally over his 70 years on this earth, I am compelled to share my thoughts about my friend for whom I hold the highest regard.
I first met Larry Garrison in the spring of 1984 after replying to a classified ad in the New England Journal of Medicine for a general surgeon at Cape Canaveral Hospital in Cocoa Beach, Florida. When I visited in March I was surprised to see that Larry, administrator of the hospital since 1979, was my age.
At this juncture of my career, I had worked at over a half dozen hospitals where the relationship between the administration and the employed staff could be characterized as superficial at best.
The tour of Cape Canaveral Hospital that Larry took me on during that recruiting trip was a revelation for me, and a bona fide reflection of the man whose professional career and personal life was based on the sage words of our 26th President of the United States, Teddy Roosevelt: “The most important single ingredient in the formula of success is knowing how to get along with people.”
As Larry escorted me around to just about every department in the hospital, he greeted each staff member by their first name, asked with sincere interest about their families, and made me feel special by introducing me as the surgeon that the community needed and had been waiting for.
In the mid-1980s Larry was determined to provide the Central Brevard community with state-of-the-art healthcare and focused on recruiting young physicians trained and qualified to deliver specialty and sub-specialty care that had previously been lacking at Cape Canaveral Hospital.
It was Larry’s constructive and very collegial collaboration with this generation of physicians that established Cape Canaveral Hospital as an excellent hospital consistently providing comprehensive, quality care across most all medical and surgical disciplines.
Unlike many hospital administrators, Larry was constantly interacting with physicians both professionally and personally, with many, if not most, of his inner circle of friends made up of members of the medical staff.
His approachability and affability, leadership, integrity, ability to recognize strategic opportunities and courage to act on them, and capacity to successfully engage all stakeholders in a collaborative effort engendered a great deal of respect from his medical staff, hospital board and hospital staff.
An aerial photo of 150-bed Cape Canaveral Hospital hung in Larry’s office with a plaque that proclaimed it the “House that Larry Built,” a very true statement, for during his tenure as hospital president from 1979 to 1995, Cape Canaveral added three floors and an adjacent medical plaza.
The year 1995 was a milestone year in Larry’s life and career.
In August of that year, Larry and his long-time friend and President of Holmes Regional Medical Center, Mike Means, had the courage to act on a vision for a new comprehensive health system that changed healthcare forever on the Space Cost by offering the Brevard community an integrated approach to wellness, the availability and accessibility of the highest quality physician and hospital care, and an affordable health plan.
Larry and Mike, both of whom retired together on December 31, 2011, left an extraordinary legacy with the establishment of Health First. The individual achievements of both administrators are impressive, but together they proved exceptional.
The creation of Health First, a comprehensive healthcare system ranked among the top in the nation, was no easy feat, as anyone who has tried to blend two very different organizations into a seamless entity will attest.
Means and Garrison achieved their goal with efficiency while keeping the best interests of the community always at the forefront as they molded, at the time they retired, a 6,600-employee, $982 million health system that encompassed hospitals, award-winning heart and trauma centers, hospice house, fitness centers, outpatient and wellness services, Vital Watch eICU, home health services, First Flight air ambulance service, and a world-class health plan highly regarded and appreciated by both providers and its 65,000 members.
“Larry was a visionary who helped pave the path for healthcare in Brevard County,” said Steve Johnson, who became Health First’s president and chief executive officer in 2012 after Larry and Mike’s retirement.
“He, along with Mike Means, had the foresight to see what the Space Coast needed in its quest for overall wellness and health, helping to establish the Integrated Delivery Network that our community has come to trust and depend on. The creation of Health First, through the merging of Cape Canaveral Hospital and Holmes Regional Center, began an incredible journey that continues to serve Brevard today and is growing along with our residents’ needs.
“Not only did he help transform local healthcare, but he was an amazing human being, community member and family man. We mourn his loss but celebrate his life and all he did to make Brevard a better, healthier place for us all,” said Johnson.
At the time that they turned the leadership of Health First over in early 2012, Larry and Mike ensured an organization whose culture was focused on quality, safety and meeting the needs of both the community and the loyal Health First employees. Larry, from the time I first met him in 1984, always emphasized the need to engender a focus on the organization as a “family.”
In his capacity as a prominent healthcare leader in the community, Larry was a fixture at many philanthropic and humanitarian events and organizations on the Space Coast. It is safe to say that few, if anyone, who ever met Larry were not impressed with his easy-going manner, warmth and generosity.
The first six years of retirement for Larry were filled with a well-deserved increase in family time spent with his wife of 20 years, Jan, two sons, Matt and Chris, stepson Justin and his wife, and his five grandchildren, as well as winters, spent at his North Carolina summer home in Beech Mountain playing golf and enjoying time with friends.
In the spring of 2018, Larry was diagnosed with a cancer of his nasal sinus. With the staunch support of his wife Jan, he underwent both chemo and radiation therapy over an 18 month period that initially seemed to be effective but ultimately led to debilitating weakness and subsequent cancer recurrence.
Jan told me that through it all he never complained and courageously maintained that distinctive sense of humor and unique ability to put things into a positive perspective right up until the end.
Larry spent his last two weeks at his home in Cocoa Beach under the care of Health First Hospice. Jan lauds the warm and attentive care provided by the Hospice nurses that got her and Larry peacefully through his last couple of days. He passed away on Thursday evening, June 4, surrounded by Jan, his sons Matt and Justin and his life-long friend Rusty Fischer.
At this time no definitive plans have been made for funeral arrangements. We will publish any scheduled arrangements as soon as they’ve been made.
It has been almost 20 years since Larry and Mike made me an offer I couldn’t refuse to retire from my clinical surgery practice at Cape Canaveral Hospital and join the senior leadership team as Chief Medical and Quality Officer at Health First.
It was Larry Garrison who patiently took me under his wing and served as my mentor in my second career as a healthcare executive. I retired shortly after Larry and watched as he flourished in retirement up until his illness. I can very humbly and sincerely say that Larry Garrison’s life contributions and achievements, and his character are such to which we should all aspire.
Rest in Peace, my good friend, as you play 18 with The Man Upstairs!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Space Coast Daily Editor-in-Chief Dr. Jim Palermo, a 36-year resident of Brevard County, touched the lives of countless people during his 22-year practice of general, vascular and non-cardiac thoracic surgery.
In 2002 he transitioned from clinical practice, in which his impact was on an individual patient level, and accepted a position as full-time chief medical officer and vice president of quality management of Health First.
Dr. Palermo made this career transformation based on his conviction that he could personally have a greater impact on improving the quality of healthcare on the Space Coast by more globally addressing quality and patient safety issues as a physician healthcare executive. During his 10 years at Health First, he was instrumental in establishing the patient-centered, patient- safe quality healthcare and service for which Health First is known throughout the Central Florida area.
An accomplished author and sought-after expert in the healthcare industry, Dr. Palermo is an independent consultant focused on healthcare quality and safety, and physician leadership development.
Dr. Palermo is a graduate of Washington University in St. Louis, the University of Missouri School of Medicine, did his surgical residency in the U.S. Army at William Beaumont Army Medical Center, is a Fellow of the American College of Surgery, and also attained a Masters of Science Degree in healthcare management in 2004 at the University of Texas at Dallas.
Dr. Palermo’s wife Kerry, a registered nurse to whom he’s been married 43 years, partners with him to run the Banyan Tree Ranch in Merritt Island, where they breed, raise and show American Quarter Horses and Labrador Retrievers.