A man with a vision

Blindness doesn't prevent Zvi Engel from running one of the country's most attractive - and most profitable - mental health centers.

zvi engel 88 298 (photo credit: )
zvi engel 88 298
(photo credit: )
"One person has diabetes, another high blood pressure, I'm blind - so what?" says Zvi Engel, the administrative head of Geha Mental Health Center in Petah Tikva. Sometimes gruff, sometimes soft-spoken, Engel is not so much a man as a phenomenon, holding down one of the most demanding and prestigious jobs in the country with what most people would consider a hopeless disability. And not just holding down a job but turning his hospital from a position of financial disarray to one of the most attractive and profitable establishments of its kind. A visit to Geha reveals a place looking more like a hotel than a mental institution, set in gardens where fishponds and flower beds welcome the patients. Inside the place is spotlessly clean - Engel makes sure of that - and classical music is piped into the corridors. "If music can help us, how much more can it help them," he says of his disturbed charges. For Engel, it's small potatoes running a hospital. For 15 years he headed the purchasing department of Kupat Holim Clalit, overseeing deals in billions of shekels. He then decided to take things a little easier and accepted the Geha position. My arrival at the hospital coincides with Engel's, as he has spent the early morning at a meeting of the Clalit executive. He steps out of the car behind mine, driven by his assistant Alon Adar, who takes both cars to the parking lot. Engel and I walk up the steps and into the hospital. He clearly knows the way and deftly maneuvers his way to his office, greeting the doorman, the security guard and his secretary. The door to his suite is locked behind us. The corridor walls and the outer and inner offices are lined with display cases filled with ancient typewriters, calculators, obsolete medical machinery and even some period radios and a sewing machine. "I see you're admiring my collection," says Engel, although I'm not quite sure how he knows this. He explains that in his previous job he was responsible for closing down many old Clalit institutions and clinics and thought it a pity to throw out the many historical artifacts. "I had to bring them here," he explains. "Tova [his wife] won't have them in the house." THE LIGHT airy room has a large map of the vineyards of France on one wall. Engel is something of a connoisseur of good wines and keeps a respectable cellar in his Kfar Saba home. He explains his work philosophy. "Whatever I have to do, I do it with all my heart," he says. "I can't stand mediocrity. As the director here, I make demands on my workers that everything they do they should do to the best of their ability. That's how I raised my sons too. I always said, I don't care if you become street sweepers, but do it well and respect your work." For getting around the hospital he often relies on Alon, putting a hand on his shoulder as he visits the different departments to make sure everything is ticking over the way it should. "I believe the director has to see, but more importantly, be seen," he explains. "Being blind for me is more of a nuisance than a barrier. I can do anything except drive and be a pilot. I can walk around alone at night as I can make out the spotlights, but during the day I'm afraid more for the people who might bump into me." To emphasize that he won't let his disability stop him from living a normal life, he tells me how he traveled to New York with one of his three sons just to attend a Rolling Stones concert. "And I cycled around wine country in France with a friend on a double bike," he tells me proudly. When he accepted the Geha appointment he inherited the largest deficit in Clalit history. "Within a year I had erased it and since then we actually make a profit," he tells me. He achieved this by cutting expenses in innovative and imaginative ways."I can't cut salaries, but I can reduce the number of workers, have fewer shifts and install more automation. I also installed water- and electricity-saving devices. We also make money by selling our services. For instance the Education Ministry buys our services for testing and diagnosing ADHD. And the catering in our kitchens is of such a high quality that we are regularly booked to cater other Clalit events and this brings a substantial income." DURING THE time he has been there the entire hospital has been refurbished, air-conditioning installed in the corridors as well as the rooms and new toilet facilities in every ward. Engel's efforts have succeeded to the extent that Geha was awarded a prize by the Council for a Beautiful Israel as the most attractive hospital in the country in 2004. He is always thinking up new ideas to improve the day-to-day life of his patients, people suffering from anything from clinical depression to severe schizophrenia. He has put in tennis courts, a basketball court, a well-stocked library and now is building a gym. Smoking is more common among the mentally disturbed population than in the general population and this is immediately evident as we walk around the hospital together. "In the general population, 30 percent smoke and 70% don't, while here it's the other way round," he explains. It is a problem he is working on, and he hopes to at least reduce the amount of smoking in the public areas. "It's not an insurmountable problem," he says. Engel points out all his innovations - special anti-vandalism devices over the Internet points, nose-down shower heads ("so they can't hang themselves"), low wattage electric bulbs so they can't electrocute themselves. "Here's the padded cell," he says, opening a door. A small room, presently unoccupied, is revealed. "Don't look so horrified," says Engel, as though he can actually see the expression on my face. "They ask to come in here if they want to bang their heads against a wall." As we walk around he repeatedly points out how clean it is. "I come and check for myself, or I send people," he says in answer to a query as to how it stays so spotless. "I have to rely on other people to some extent, so my workers have to be honest and reliable." Geha also contains a kindergarten and a school for children with behavioral problems, and Engel proudly shows the cheerful, brightly colored play areas for the little ones who also enjoy a petting zoo on the grounds, another of his innovations. ZVI ENGEL was born in Rishon Lezion in 1948. His parents had met here, his mother having come from Poland and his father from Slovakia. He and his older sister practically raised themselves. "When I was nine and she was 12, she used to go to the PTA meetings instead of my parents," he recalls. "They were too busy making a living. They ran a business and also did some catering. We didn't mind, we knew they were working hard for us, not out playing cards and drinking in pubs. It made us very independent and it forced us to grow up quickly." Today his sister lives in the US and they speak every day on the phone. Between the ages of 20 and 25, when he already had impaired vision resulting from retina pigmentosa, a degenerative disease of the retina, Engel studied economics, politics and government in New York. He returned in 1973 and began working for Clalit as a deputy manager in the equipment and provisions department. Ten years later, he was appointed manager with responsibility for purchasing the tens of thousands of items needed to run its 14 hospitals and more than 1,000 clinics; the health fund is the biggest employer in the country with more than 30,000 employees. Between 1993 and 1997 he was responsible for other purchases, including equipment and medicines, and eventually he was in charge of every aspect of equipping the hospitals and clinics. After having such a high-powered job, running Geha, with its five departments and staff of 300, seems like a rest cure. On an average day, he gets up at 4.45 a.m. "I don't like to sleep too long, it's a waste of time," he says. He then spends an hour on his treadmill listening to music, either classical or jazz and sixties pop. "I listen to the news once in the morning and that's it. I don't want to hear it for the rest of the day," he says. "What can possibly change from one hour to the next?" At 6.30 a.m. on two days a week, a personal trainer arrives to do an hour or so of kickboxing. There's still time for a quick breakfast - tea, fruit and bran flakes - before Alon arrives to drive him to the hospital. On other days he lifts weights and walks, clocking up 20 kilometers a weekend. IN THE CAR, he listens to the radio and makes business calls. He plans what he can for the day ahead and is involved in every aspect of running the hospital - administration, manpower, logistics, security, construction, legal problems, personnel problems, patient problems. "We are not dealing with healthy people," he reminds me. Only the day before one of the patients cut herself, then climbed onto the roof and threatened to jump off. It took all his considerable powers of organization and people skills to avert a catastrophe. His secretary Shoshie tells me he has a phenomenal memory for dates, phone numbers, events and when they took place and that his mind works like a computer. When things are not going as smoothly as he likes, he can shout until he gets what he wants. "Yes, he can be quite intimidating," Shoshie says, "but he really has a heart of gold." After the workday, which may end as late as 8 or 9, he gets home to his small house in Kfar Saba and can finally relax. He is a voracious reader, and will always have several audio books going at once. He is able to get any book he wants from the US Library of Congress and reads a lot of modern history and biography. He also reads several journals, National Geographic, US News and World Report, Time and Newsweek. He and his wife Tova frequently entertain guests for Friday night and Shabbat lunch. On both days he walks to synagogue if one of his three sons or his wife can lead him - two sons are married with children - and he says that he strongly believes in religion but doesn't practice too much. But he likes the social aspects of shul. It is often there, on Shabbat, that I meet Engel and he throws English words at me without preamble or niceties, expecting a dictionary definition which tests my powers to the limit. "What's 'egregious'?" he will bark at me. "What's 'atavistic'?" My heart sinks. Trust Zvika to come across words that are so difficult to define. I do my best to explain whatever word he needs for the particular article he is listening to at the time and hope he won't remember my explanation by the time he gets home if it's wrong, but given his fantastic memory, he probably will.