Remembering John Ferguson: A letter from Carol Burrell

Published: Tuesday, January 25, 2022
Carol Burrell
NGHS President & CEO

It’s with a heavy heart that I share the passing of NGHS’ first President & CEO, John A. Ferguson. John died around 3 a.m. Sunday, surrounded by his family. He was 82.

When Lydia, John’s wife, called to let us know John was not doing well and they did not expect to have him much longer – we started pulling old photos and news clippings for her that chronicled his nearly 40 years as the leader of Northeast Georgia Health System. As I look at those photos and read those articles, I feel a deep sense of personal loss at his passing as well as overwhelming gratitude to have called him my friend and for what he accomplished for our community.

The list of advancements NGHS made under his leadership is long, and I’ll include a very abbreviated list at the end of this email. The list gives a glimpse of how he lived his life to build our health system and our community – but the photos tell the story better. There are lots of shots from ribbon-cuttings, because the organization did a lot of building during John’s leadership. There are many “grip-and-grins” with important officials and dignitaries. But the photos that give you the best picture of John’s motivation for the powerful drive that helped him excel are the candids. An old black-and-white with a glare from a harsh flash shows John in a wide tie holding a hunting rifle. The rifle was given to him as a Christmas gift by the hospital employees. Around him are nurses, environmental services staff and a member of our security team who all pitched in knowing his love for hunting. Another year, they got him a propane tank – and he seems just as delighted. In a stack of photos from an awards banquet, there’s a loving picture of John with his young son, Angus, in his arms. John accomplished great things motivated by great love. You can click here and here to watch short segments featuring John from a video Northeast Georgia History Center developed about the history of health care in Hall County.

John was a part of the organization from 1964 to 2004: four decades of leadership. He came as a hospital engineer – the first in the state – but within four years, at the age of 28, he was the youngest Hospital Administrator and CEO in the state. He led Northeast Georgia Health System as CEO for an unprecedented 36 years.

When John came to what was then called Hall County Hospital, the organization was a single acute care hospital with 147 beds and 430 employees. Within 10 years of John’s promotion to CEO, the hospital’s acute-care bed size had almost doubled, including a dedicated 10-bed intensive care unit and 10-bed cardiac care unit – as well as a 20-bed mental health unit. Once, in an interview about the financial success of the organization under his leadership, he modestly quipped, “Well, insurance and the government started paying us, so for the first time we weren’t just trying to stay out of the red. There was a time when patients often paid in eggs or whatever they had, and the hospital bought everything at Army Surplus.”

With all respect for John’s modesty, the system continued to thrive after huge cuts to those payment models. That growth was possible, in large part, due to John’s efforts to keep the institution nimble and ready for the future. In 1986, John led the hospital through corporate reorganization in which the Hospital Authority of Gainesville and Hall County leased the Medical Center to a holding company, Northeast Georgia Health System. This restructuring enabled the organization to expand healthcare services across county lines and improve access to care for citizens throughout Northeast Georgia.

I am thankful for that vision to expand our primary care network throughout the region, in no small part because it’s how I arrived at NGHS back in 1999. John recruited me to Gainesville from Jacksonville, Florida, to be the executive director of NGHS’ Primary Care Network – what is today called Northeast Georgia Physicians Group. I was excited to “come home” of course and be closer to family, but there was more that attracted me to NGHS. John’s leadership was magnetic, his vision for healthcare services in this region was palpable and his enthusiasm was contagious. 

I grieve John’s passing as a friend and as a member of a very grateful community, and my heart goes out to his wife Lydia and their family. He is survived by his four children – Debbie Chambers, Wendy Ferguson, Lynn Dickey, Angus Ferguson – eight grandchildren and one great grandchild. I thank them for sharing him with us, and hope you’ll do the same.

​​​​​​​The John A. Ferguson, Jr. Scholarship endowment was established by NGHS in his honor in 1994. The scholarship offers financial assistance to individuals with a demonstrated interest in a career in health care. You can click here to make a gift to the endowment in his memory, which will only help his legacy grow.

​​​​​​​Highlights of the growth of NGHS under John’s leadership include:

  • 1966 – A new emergency room opens at NGMC Gainesville, and capacity is expanded from a one-room to a four-room facility, with a dedicated covered entrance and waiting room.
  • 1976 – A $10 million expansion to the hospital is completed. The major expansion project adds a new 12-room operating suite, a new emergency room that would accommodate 30,000 patients a year, a new 10-bed intensive Coronary Care Unit, a 10-bed Surgical Intensive Care Unit, 40 additional acute care beds and a major expansion to x-ray and several support services.
  • 1983 – NGMC opens an Urgent Care Center in Oakwood, which later becomes a Neighborhood Healthcare Center, essentially starting the primary care network which will continue to grow and become Northeast Georgia Physicians Group.
  • 1987 – NGMC opens Laurelwood, a new mental health, alcohol and drug abuse treatment facility for adults and teens.
  • 1989 – NGMC acquires the first of its two long-term care centers, New Horizons.
  • 1989 – NGMC’s Rehabilitation Institute for physical rehabilitation is founded to help restore patients with physical disabilities to their maximum level of independence.  The program has since been expanded to include in-patient and outpatient rehabilitation, industrial rehabilitation and sports medicine rehab.
  • 1994 – NGMC led a collaborative community effort with local schools, the health department, the Junior League and other service organizations to generate funds for a Mobile Health Unit to provide basic healthcare screenings and services to people who had limited resources to access more traditional healthcare services.
  • 1995 – The first Quick Care location, which will late become Urgent Care, opens on the campus of NGMC Gainesville.
  • Mid-1990s – The Medical Center Foundation expands fundraising beyond the Medical Center to benefit other organizations that work to improve the health of the community.
  • 1999 – The Medical Center opens a new freestanding four-room sleep lab for the diagnosis and treatment of patients with sleep disorders.
  • 2001 – Toccoa Cancer Center opens.
  • 2002 – NGMC begins offering open heart surgery and cardiac interventional services at the new Ronnie Green Heart Center in Gainesville.
  • 2004 – John lays out a $400 million capital expansion plan, the largest in NGHS history, and leads selection of the future site of NGMC Braselton before he retires.