The battle over the women’s center at D.C.’s Sibley hospital

The battle over the women’s center at D.C.’s Sibley hospital
(Cornelia Li for The Washington Post)
(Cornelia Li for The Washington Post)

Funds were raised. Donors and doctors were energized. Then things began to fall apart.

Rachel Sullivan chose a black Marchesa gown for the big night. Tall, with long brown hair and a can-do energy that inspires friends across the philanthropy world, the Washington native and mother of three had organized her latest Hope & Progress Gala to fund an effort especially dear to her heart. Since Sullivan founded it in 2001, the annual formal dinner-dance had helped raise money for Sibley Memorial Hospital, where two decades earlier she had survived a life-changing health crisis. But on this March night in 2018, the $500 tickets — as well as the $50,000 “Innovation” and $25,000 “Pioneer” sponsorships — were exclusively funding a passion project eight years in the making: a new Women’s Health Center at Sibley.

According to the Johns Hopkins-Sibley magazine, the center — which was intended to provide integrated and comprehensive care for the region’s women — would have an official groundbreaking that summer. But there were already tours available for donors to canvass the space on the fourth floor of one of Sibley’s buildings, where a large glass sign that said “Johns Hopkins Women’s Health Center” had been placed outside an office suite undergoing renovation.

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Sullivan, then 53, had invited leading female executives and A-list donors from the area — such as Washington doyenne Sandy Bobb and former Xerox executive Debbie Warren — to rally around a cause that seemed perfectly suited to the moment. Women needed the support of other women; the #MeToo movement had recently underscored this point. In this spirit, Rachel, who along with husband Tom had already donated nearly $1 million to Sibley over the years, saw the Women’s Center as something that would “make a difference and would endure.”

The evening turned out perfectly. The 570 tickets had sold out early, and a number of D.C. power players chipped in. The Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium, across the street from the National Museum of American History on Constitution Avenue, was packed with tables full of Washington players and reliable local philanthropists. In the high-ceilinged ballroom, a surfeit of candles flickered on each table and floral arrangements towered above seated guests.

The formal part of the event began with remarks from a female emcee who described 2018 as “The Year of the Woman.” Sibley President and CEO Chip Davis exuded excitement when he took the mic. “We are announcing an extraordinary initiative for 2018, so extraordinary that tonight will probably be remembered in Sibley history as the birth of a great and lasting legacy — the establishment of the Johns Hopkins Women’s Center at Sibley Memorial Hospital,” he said, adding that the center “will open this summer in a phased approach.” Davis then introduced a special guest, Kevin Sowers, the newly appointed president of the Johns Hopkins Health System, which had acquired Sibley in 2010. Some Hopkins board members were also on hand.

Sullivan narrated a slide show on the Women’s Center. (“Imagine having a key that opens the door to all of your health needs. How empowering it would be.”) Then she and the incoming medical director of the center, Colette Magnant, a nationally renowned breast cancer surgeon, were supposed to kick off a live auction. But they’d learned that the gala had already raised some $900,000, so instead of opening the auction, they jointly announced, “Let’s skip the fundraising part tonight and just celebrate what all of you have done!” They signaled the band to begin playing, and Sullivan took the dance floor with Tom. “We were practically giddy,” she remembers.

Yet four years later, all that would exist of Sullivan’s effort was the wall-sized glass sign, still hanging as of August in front of some of Sibley’s gynecology offices. Sullivan now looks back at that March 2018 night not as a triumph, but as the moment after which Johns Hopkins betrayed her and her fellow donors’ trust, an allegation that Hopkins vehemently denies.

Hopkins would not grant interviews with the hospital executives named in this story, but it did respond to my questions with written statements. I called or emailed 39 of the top 65 donors to the Women’s Center. Of those, nine went on the record and shared their exasperation, and more than 20 others expressed similar frustration with Hopkins but declined to allow their names to be used. (Disclosure: In addition to being a longtime journalist, I sometimes write for corporations in the fields of health insurance, life insurance and real estate, contributing to opinion pieces authored by leaders of these firms. I also served as chief investigator for the Senate Budget Committee in 2017, working for the Democratic side, which was then in the minority. None of this work has in any way concerned Johns Hopkins Medicine or Sibley.)

As in many of the recent high-profile feuds between donors and nonprofits, at the core of this dispute is the question of what institutions owe donors who have given money for a specific project. The battle over the Women’s Center is also a distinctly Washington story: less about the money (just over a million dollars) than about who should be deciding what’s best for women at Sibley, the city’s most elite and highly rated hospital.

The cause of women’s health is deeply personal to Rachel Sullivan. In 1999, she was nine weeks pregnant with a fourth child when she learned during a routine medical checkup that she had breast cancer. Sullivan, who had grown up in Rockville, was a former stockbroker. “I’m tough,” she told me. “But I was scared. Really scared. I was 35 years old with three small children. I couldn’t talk.”

Sullivan and her husband, a lawyer turned businessman who’d made a fortune in the telecom merger rush of the late 1990s, set out to find a good oncologist fast. That’s when she recalled that on her child’s third-grade class trip, she’d met a fellow parent whose wife, Colette Magnant, was a noted breast surgeon with Sibley Memorial Hospital.

In Washington, the wealthy and powerful often end up at Sibley, located in the far western corner of Northwest D.C. Retail tycoon Herbert Haft died there in 2004 at the age of 84, just two weeks after a wedding ceremony in the hospital with his longtime fiancee. During the early 2000s, unknown to most of Washington, Prince Bandar bin Sultan of Saudi Arabia — a celebrity-diplomat — had a home on Sibley’s seventh floor, according to multiple former high-ranking employees and a former board member. His quarters (referred to by the hospital staff as the “Bandar wing”) were luxuriously decorated and included a gold-plated bidet. Cabinet members or their families from several administrations have landed there for rehab, secure in Sibley’s reputation for discretion.

However, Sibley did not start out as a celebrity care center. In the 1890s, it was a place to train nurses for the women’s Home Missionary Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church. Their mission was to serve the poor. Over the next century, it evolved into a boutique hospital with a reputation for having a true community vibe, caring nurses and top doctors — including Colette Magnant.

When the Sullivans contacted Magnant in 1999, she told them to be in her office the next morning at 7. “She didn’t know me,” says Rachel Sullivan, “but she immediately took over. She had a whole plan and she laid it out for us. It was calming, like she was holding my hand.”

The treatment was grueling. Sullivan had a partial mastectomy, eight sessions of chemotherapy, then a full mastectomy and hysterectomy. She was in remission in a year, but there was no fourth child. Out of this painful chapter, Sullivan and Magnant became close friends. “Rachel is down-to-earth, funny and she volunteers for everything,” Magnant told me.

About a year later, Magnant mentioned to Sullivan that she wished Sibley could afford one of the newer high-tech 3D mammogram machines. Sullivan had raised money before for her children’s schools. “This was my pay-it-forward moment,” she says. “I told Colette, ‘I owe you so much; let me help.’ ” That “help” culminated in a $1 million event at FedEx Field, the first of Sibley’s Hope & Progress Galas. It led to the state-of-the-art Sullivan Breast Center. Over the following years, the Hope & Progress Galas begun by Sullivan raised some $20 million; the Sullivans have hosted at least three of them. “If Rachel could save the world, she would do it,” says former Sibley CEO Bob Sloan. “When she develops an interest in a cause, she gives of herself as well as her resources.”

In 2010, Magnant and Sullivan were out walking together when Magnant floated an idea for a women’s health center. She explained to Sullivan that she was seeing “too much medicine in silos,” especially for women with complex health issues. For example, pregnant women with cancer have many conditions, some conflicting. She wanted to create a center where affiliated doctors coordinated treatment.

Magnant told me that her vision was very much a local one, especially when it came to serving the larger D.C. community. “I wanted a program that would also have outreach to underserved women in places like Anacostia,” she says. Sullivan felt that the local service angle would appeal to donors such as herself, who both gave to Sibley and used it as their community hospital.

That same year, Sibley was being courted for acquisition by several health-care systems, including Johns Hopkins. While Sibley had long catered to Washington’s upper class, Hopkins’s patients include many of Baltimore’s indigent and uninsured. According to a former Sibley executive, Sibley had the cash Hopkins wanted, about three-quarters of a billion dollars in its reserves, foundation and endowments. Former Sibley employees told me that Sibley wanted the connection to a major player in medicine, because the economies of scale could help contain the rising costs of hospital insurance. Sibley, former employees also said, wanted an institution with a strong cancer program and a relationship with the National Institutes of Health. The deal was sealed that year. Like a marriage match in “Bridgerton,” Sibley got to carry Hopkins’s name, and Hopkins got its treasure. (“Our goal,” a Johns Hopkins Medicine spokesperson wrote to me, “was to unite two committed mission-minded organizations that shared a vision of providing both the highest-quality care and the greatest access for our patients.”)

Around 2016, Sullivan began rounding up friends and likely supporters for the Women’s Center. Just as Sullivan had expected, Magnant’s vision for a local focus became a strong attraction. “This was to be a Sibley-based center, a community project — that’s what was exciting and why donors were giving their money,” says Carin Sigel, a donor and health-care lawyer who has represented hospital systems and was on the center’s advisory council.

The numbers grew quickly. Cheryl New, one of D.C.’s leading divorce lawyers, joined as co-chair of the advisory council. Philanthropists such as attorney Elizabeth Downes, who was executive director of the Association of Independent Schools of Greater Washington and worked pro bono for the Children’s Law Center, became council members. A gift from Geico of $55,000 was accompanied by a personal donation of $20,000 from a senior vice president. “She is a grateful patient of Dr. Magnant and thinks the idea of the Women’s Center is something Geico should be a part of,” wrote the head of the Sibley Memorial Hospital Foundation in an email explaining the gift.

The council wanted Magnant, who headed Sibley’s breast cancer program, to be the center’s medical director, and Sumera Haque, a doctor who was working at the hospital as operations administrator for the breast surgery program, to be the director. A women’s rights proponent who had fled Pakistan to escape domestic violence and had been painted by no less than George W. Bush as part of his immigrant portrait series, Haque was excited about the job. In September 2018, she became administrative director of the Women’s Center.

In 2018 and 2019, Haque and Magnant flew to Pakistan on behalf of Johns Hopkins Medicine International to meet Shahid Hussain, a wealthy business owner who had an eponymous foundation and was chair of another large charity, the Business Hospital Trust, both of which contributed to Lahore’s Shalamar Hospital. Hussain was interested in expanding women’s health care in his country and setting up a women’s health center at Shalamar. “When I got to hear about the Women’s Center at Sibley Memorial, I thought this was something we should be doing,” Hussain told me by phone, adding, “I visited [Sibley] twice. … I wanted Shalamar’s own center to follow theirs.”

In January 2019, an official of Johns Hopkins Medicine International and interim Sibley CEO and physician Hasan Zia presented to Shalamar Medical & Dental College a proposed memorandum of understanding worth $500,000, calling for “on-site Observerships” at Sibley “and potentially other JHM locations” for Shalamar personnel. These would take place under the “Expert Team” of Magnant and Haque, who are identified as medical director and executive director, respectively, of the Women’s Center. The MOU also noted that Sibley “has recently opened the Johns Hopkins Women’s Health Center on its campus.”

According to the Hopkins spokesperson, that’s not quite right. “At the time when that agreement was drafted, the creation of a Women’s Health Center at Sibley was still underway,” the spokesperson wrote when asked whether the center was actually open. “Implementation planning [for the center] included two phases, and critical milestones for phase one had been met.”

In fact, despite the $900,000 raised at the gala, the donors and Hopkins were a long way from assembling the resources that would have been needed to sustain the center — an amount that everyone agrees would have been about $25 million. During an October 2019 breakfast meeting at Sibley for potential high-end donors to continue working toward raising the $25 million, some of the attendees — according to Sullivan and another member of the advisory council who was present — began tossing questions at Zia as he stood at a lectern. Though limited steps had been taken to get the center started — a receptionist had been answering the phone and giving out information — the donors had hoped for more progress by this point. “Rachel quickly nipped all those questions in the bud,” recalls one of the attendees. Sullivan says she did not want that specific meeting to end in a public airing of concerns about the center’s status. (“The agenda for that meeting clearly shows the concept for a women’s health center was moving ahead at that point and a lineup of speakers including Dr. Magnant gave an overview of plans for the project,” the Hopkins spokesperson wrote to me.)

But privately, Sullivan had her own doubts. In January 2020, she wrote to Sibley’s top leaders: “I’m often asked what has happened with the WC by those who attended the GALA a few years back. Just want to know how to respond thoughtfully and appropriately? Thank you please advise …!”

Sibley Foundation manager Carol Shannon wrote back that day: “In response to your question about how to respond to your friends who ask about the Women’s Center — I would share, ‘We continue to be a work in progress — great news is the construction is almost complete.’ ” But Sullivan was tired of walking past empty offices and the renovated waiting room on the fourth floor of Sibley — “tired of seeing that sign. It was laughable,” she says.

Then, the covid-19 pandemic erupted. And in June 2020, Zia sent a “Dear Colleagues” note that to Sullivan read more like a “Dear Jane” one. “As we navigate through this period, we are using this time as an opportunity to assess all of our clinical service lines. … The Women’s Health Center is one of the clinical areas for exploration. Subsequently, we have made the decision to pause further development of the center to allow Sibley the opportunity to better integrate our efforts with the health system and become part of a comprehensive plan for Women’s Health in the National Capital Region.”

The Hopkins spokesperson wrote to me that the decision to suspend development of the Women’s Center was simply a reprioritization: “As the pandemic progressed and we learned to navigate new realities, we realized that some of our projects — like large investments in a Sibley-specific experience or dramatic changes to a bricks and mortar space — were not actually the best way to meet patient and community needs.”

Sumera Haque was devastated. Starting in 2016, she says, she had put hundreds of hours of her own time into working on plans for the center’s operations. “They told me that since covid had postponed the Women’s Center, they did not need me,” she says. She left the hospital in June 2020.

On Nov. 23, 2020, Zia sent a letter that reached some executives, at least one VIP donor and, through the network, Sullivan. “Thank you for supporting Women’s health care at Sibley Hospital,” he wrote, noting that Sibley was hiring new doctors for breast, gynecologic and urologic cancer. “Additionally, I wanted to share with you that Dr. Colette Magnant is leaving the Sullivan Breast Center.”

Magnant — who, according to the former Sibley executive, was one of the hospital’s highest paid doctors — says she left over a contract dispute. Asked about this, the Hopkins spokesperson wrote to me: “It is against our policy to discuss employment details,” adding that if Magnant gave Hopkins permission to “disclose the details of her departure and her compensation package, then we can provide additional context.” Asked to respond, Magnant scoffed: “No.” Instead, she shared the 2020 contract she rejected, showing that it would cut her salary significantly and included a noncompete clause. “Would you sign this?” she asked.

For Sullivan and her allies, Magnant’s departure was a painful loss. Magnant “was Sibley breast care,” says donor Amy Lancellotta, director of a large mutual fund complex, “and she was the heart and soul of the Women’s Health Center project.”

In the wake of this news, Sullivan sent a sharply worded email to the head of Johns Hopkins Medicine and dean of its medical school, physician Paul Rothman. It was also addressed to Kevin Sowers, the health system president whom Sullivan and many donors had met the night of the 2018 gala. She wrote that the letter from Zia “has only served to deepen my concerns and those of others regarding the status of the Women’s Center. For those of us involved in the front lines of this endeavor, our integrity and reputation are now, unfairly, on the line.” She added, “We deserve a full accounting of where this project stands and where the funds reside.”

In early 2021, Rothman reached out and set up a video meeting with Sullivan and Hopkins’s capital region president. According to Sullivan’s notes from their half-hour conversation, Rothman told her that much of the original Women’s Center money had been spent. The Hopkins spokesperson wrote to me: “Half of the funds raised to date for the Women’s Center were spent before the June 2020 pause, primarily on personnel and related administrative support that was identified as necessary for the phase one development of the Center.” By the end of 2020, donations had totaled about $1.07 million. Just over $400,000 was spent on salaries — including a small percentage of Magnant’s salary and Haque’s full salary — while “[t]hree donations, totaling $162,000, were redesignated to other initiatives per our conversations with the three donors and the donors’ requests.”

Johns Hopkins is no stranger to fights with donors over the use of their contributions. In 2011, Hopkins was sued by members of the family that had owned Belward Farm in Montgomery County, Md. The family had sold the valuable property to Hopkins at a below-market price, rather than selling it much more profitably to large commercial developers, with the expectation that Hopkins would use it for a small, rural research center. Instead, Hopkins decided to build a large tech center. Family members ultimately lost their case because, a court said, their wishes were not made more specific in their written bequest.

Sullivan and other donors feel that, from the beginning, they made it amply clear that their contributions were “restricted funds,” meaning exclusively for the Women’s Center as they had envisioned it. They note that the cover of the brochure for the 2018 Hope & Progress Gala explicitly says, “Supporting the launch of the Johns Hopkins Women’s Center at Sibley.” In addition to donations, such as the ones from Geico and its vice president, that were marked specifically for the Women’s Center, Sullivan points to her 2020 email exchange with foundation manager Carol Shannon in which she asked if the center had “its own foundation fund.”

“The Women’s Center does not have its own foundation,” Shannon responded, “but does have a cost center like many departments at Sibley. The cost center is where restricted donations to the Women Center are directed.” Indeed, a Hopkins spokesperson confirmed to me that this is restricted money: “Donations made to the Sibley Women’s Health Center are, and have always been, in a restricted fund and have not been used for anything other than to support the initial steps in establishing a Women’s Health Center at Sibley.”

This concept is important to Sullivan and her allies because one of the best practices on restricted donations is that institutions must use the money as donors intended or give them the choice of reclaiming or redirecting it. Told that Hopkins sent letters to doctors and the advisory council saying the center was postponed, Doug White, a former director of the Fundraising Management Program at Columbia University who has written five books on charity scandals, says this step did not follow restricted-funds protocol. “Johns Hopkins has the right to postpone [the Women’s Center] or kill it,” says White, who consults on some of the country’s major philanthropy lawsuits as an ethics expert. “But, and this is important, even if the center’s on hold, if it is going to be different from what the donors planned and intended, Johns Hopkins should contact every donor, offering to either refund their money or redirect where their gift should go.”

Of the 36 donors I contacted in March, only two, Sandy Bobb and Elizabeth Downes, reported that Hopkins had given them the opportunity to re-designate their funds or get a refund. Most told me they had not been contacted.

“For 35 years,” says Dr. Colette Magnant, “I’ve been listening to women patients tell me what they need, and the answer was a center, a place for them in their community.”

“No one from Hopkins has contacted me, and I would like my money back,” Carin Sigel, who donated $5,000, told me in March. Early that month, Sigel says, a Sibley Foundation fundraiser called to ask if she would donate $5,000, as she did often, to the hospital. “I told her no, given that there is no Women’s Center.”

Lisa Friedlander, a lawyer and “angel investor” in Washington, told me in March that Sibley hadn’t contacted her. She, her husband and two friends attended the gala because they’d embraced the concept of the Women’s Center. “I’m not looking to get my money back,” she says. “What I was looking for was the center — in our community hospital. That’s what we gave for.”

Asked to comment on donors’ complaints that they hadn’t been contacted or given an opportunity to redirect their contributions, the Hopkins spokesperson responded: “While in hindsight, there could have been more communication with all donors about the status of the Sibley Women’s Health Center, we have communicated at length — and in the middle of a pandemic — with members of the Sibley Women’s Health Center Advisory Council to share status updates regarding the Women’s Health Center at Sibley and a path forward that would best meet the needs of our patients and community.”

On April 4, a couple of weeks after Hopkins’s response to me, Sibley Foundation manager Kristen Pruski sent out a lengthy email to all donors, titled “Women’s Health updates at Sibley & upcoming webinar.” Pruski thanked them for their commitment to the Women’s Center and gave them information about the many things Hopkins is doing for women. Near the bottom, the email says, “We look forward to answering any questions you may have and are happy to have a phone call to discuss the future of women’s healthcare at Sibley or your contribution more specifically.” (“NOT AN INVITATION TO GET MY CONTRIBUTION BACK!!” thundered Sigel in a recent email to me. Said the Hopkins spokesperson: “It is worth noting that no donors chose to re-designate their donation or seek a refund after this email.”)

The spokesperson for Hopkins noted to me that, in addition to the three redirected donations, “[o]ne donation was returned in 2020.” The spokesperson also pointed out that Hopkins has continued to expand services for local women through new clinical providers of urogynecology and gynecology at Sibley, as well as through the Maternal Health Access Program, “which works to address disparities in maternal and neonatal morbidity in D.C.”

Champions of the center, however, contend that by turning away from its original concept of a bricks-and-mortar site Hopkins is not serving the needs of Sibley’s female patients. “For 35 years I’ve been listening to women patients tell me what they need, and the answer was a center, a place for them in their community,” says Magnant. “They could come to talk with doctors who would coordinate their care and meet other specialists who would collaborate with their team. They’d see other women with similarly complex conditions.” Hopkins, Magnant adds, “didn’t care about the Women’s Center. They have bigger plans.”

On a Sunday morning in February, Sullivan sits in her living room in Potomac, Md. — where sunlight floods through a 20-foot-tall Palladian window — and rifles through a black braided leather bag. It’s much bigger than a tote: nearly 24 inches wide and 20 inches tall and so stuffed with documents and folders that Sullivan has trouble putting papers back into it. This is her “Sibley” bag, crammed with printouts of more than 1,000 emails from 2016 to the end of 2021, room layouts and architect drawings, speeches, talking points, financial statements, and the plans for raising the remainder of the $25 million.

Sullivan is dressed in what she calls her regular clothes — sweatshirt, leggings and Bombas sneaker socks — a far cry from the ballgown and heels she wore in 2018 to celebrate what she thought would be the beautiful future of the Women’s Center. She’s astonished by what she sees as the hospital system’s disrespect toward the local donor community and patronizing attitude of “we know best.” “I don’t want my money back,” says Sullivan, whose contributions totaled about $150,000. “I just want them held accountable.” Her voice getting stronger, she adds, “This was a women’s health-care project … and it was slapped down.”

Meanwhile, Johns Hopkins is growing in D.C. — and around the globe. As Washington Business Journal wrote early this year, the hospital system is “kicking off 2022 with aggressive plans to plant more roots in Greater Washington.” In March 2021, Hopkins filed zoning permits for a new medical office and surgery center on the Belward Farm land; in February, Hopkins opened a clinic in McLean, its first foray into Northern Virginia, and it has plans for a larger site in Arlington.

But the project that makes Sullivan and Magnant shake their heads has nothing to do with the D.C. area. In April 2021, Hopkins International signed what the Hopkins spokesperson described to me as “an updated agreement” with Shalamar Hospital in Pakistan and Shahid Hussain, on behalf of the Business Hospital Trust. In exchange for the $500,000 fee, Hopkins, this version of the agreement said, would provide “Observerships” in the United States for Shalamar personnel and “consultative services” including “supporting workshops and implementation support with the long-term goal of developing a comprehensive Women’s Health Center at Shalamar.” The updated agreement doesn’t mention the Women’s Center at Sibley. The Hopkins spokesperson wrote to me that the old MOU from 2019 was now “outdated.”

“Hopkins is benefiting from the contacts … Sumera and I met with in Lahore discussing Sibley’s Women’s Center,” says Magnant. She adds that “in the bigger picture, I am gratified that the women of Pakistan are going to get this important and innovative health-care project.” But good news in Pakistan does not resolve questions about what took place — and what could have been — in D.C. “What about at Sibley? What about us?” Sullivan says, looking at the photos of the smiling faces of Hopkins folks on Shalamar’s website. She sighs and says, “Do you think Hopkins will send them our glass sign, too?”

Alicia Mundy is a reporter in Washington and author of two books on major health-care controversies, including “Dispensing With the Truth,” about the fen-phen diet drug disaster.