One-on-one with Bernie Syron
Passionate and tireless community builders, Bernie and Mildred Syron have spent the last three decades helping St. Michael’s transform into a global research and patient care powerhouse.
Donors like Bernie and Mildred Syron have been the driving force behind St. Michael’s bold transformation. In the last 10 years alone we’ve seen the rise of world-class facilities such as the Li Ka Shing Knowledge Institute, the Peter Gilgan Patient Care Tower, and the Slaight Family Emergency Department. Thanks to the relentless commitment of supporters like the Syrons, St. Michael’s has gained global recognition for taking on some of the world’s toughest health-care challenges.
Maybe it’s the constellation of health-care leaders who rise to the challenge every day. Maybe it’s the rich culture of compassion that dates back to 1892. Maybe it’s the personification of Toronto’s most prevailing values—community, inclusivity, and the impulse to help.
Bernie Syron, one of St. Michael’s longest-standing volunteers, reveals the many reasons why he and his wife, Mildred, have become two of the hospital’s most dedicated champions.
When you first got involved with St. Michael’s in the late ‘80s, you were CEO of Cara Operations—Canada’s largest full-service restaurant company. You must have had a lot on your plate. What compelled you to join the hospital’s board?
They forced me to! OK, I got involved because I truly believe it’s a great institution. I was treated here many times. I got to know the board members, the administration, the doctors—it’s just a wonderful place to be. The people are tremendously dedicated. They do wonderful work. And while I’m sure you can say that about a lot of hospitals, I really believe St. Michael’s is special. I wanted to see it prosper.
What was St. Michael’s like back then?
In those days, it was much different. Much smaller. It was run by the Sisters of St. Joseph, who I got to know well. They added a unique dimension to the place. They helped shape the culture—a culture that’s been preserved over nearly 130 years. I think that alone sets St. Michael’s apart. I’ve always wanted to see it succeed—to see it become even greater.
I think the Li Ka Shing Knowledge Institute, which came to life in 2011, was a major step forward—it really does make us a different kind of hospital. The new Peter Gilgan Patient Care Tower will be another big differentiator.
How would you describe the care you received as a patient?
Excellent. I’ve been in and out of St. Michael’s for a number of different reasons over the years. The staff has no idea who I am. They don’t care whether I’m a CEO or a board member, or whether I just walked in from the alleyway. That’s the nice thing about this place. Everyone receives the same care. It’s such a great feeling and that really, really attracted me to St. Mike’s—our treatment of those who are homeless, marginalized or vulnerable. It’s one of the things that makes this city so great. And you really get to see those values in action here.
What inspired you and Mildred to make a visionary gift to establish the Bernie and Mildred Syron Nursing Excellence Program—the first of its kind at St. Michael’s?
Anyone who receives care at St. Mike’s knows that the nurses go above and beyond. They work tirelessly, but they don’t often get the support and recognition they deserve. They’re always ready to help. They all speak with one voice. We wanted to give them the tools and resources to continue to grow. It’s important to let the nurses know that they are respected and appreciated. And they will let others know that this is a great place to be.
There’s a reason why St. Michael’s is the No. 1 pick among medical residents. I want it to be the No. 1 pick for all nurses because of the immense opportunities to advance and perform interesting work. That’s why it was so important for us to include a job shadow component in the program. We wanted to provide nurses with the opportunity to spend time learning about new areas related to their practice and translate that knowledge to their colleagues. It will ultimately lead to better outcomes.
What a bold and inspiring declaration of support for St. Michael’s nurses.
Well, we kind of felt that we had given enough to building things. It was time to turn our attention to other areas that need support, like our nurses. It’s up to us as Governors [former St. Michael’s Board and Foundation members] to identify these opportunities. It’s a unique venture, this program, but I think it will be very successful. It’s not like giving money to create a facility or to buy a piece of equipment. It’s something that has to be nurtured and brought to life. And I’m confident it will be.
What do you want to say to St. Michael’s nurses?
I want them to know and understand—not just through words, but through action—that myself, Mildred and all the patients who come to St. Michael’s really do appreciate them. If I can steal a line from the hospital’s former president, Dr. Bob Howard, ‘our nurses are the glue that holds St. Michael’s together.’
Why is philanthropy so important to you and Mildred?
I think philanthropy is important to everyone. I think all people want to do something. And while we often associate philanthropy with giving money, there are so many other ways to help that are deeply important. Time and effort, for example.
I just so happened to get involved with St. Mike’s at a formative time. The Foundation was in its infancy. For so long, the Sisters were the main fundraisers. When Mildred and I saw there was a real need, we got involved. I helped raise money for the very first campaign and Mildred ran the very first Ball—that was the beginning for us.
What is your proudest St. Mike’s moment?
I think back to when I first started. The hospital certainly had some trying times, financially. But we got through it and now look where we are today. Those were the days that I remember most. They were challenging but they were fun. We worked hard. There were many late night meetings. But it was very rewarding.
What’s the one thing that sets St. Michael’s apart from other hospitals?
I think there are many things that set St. Michael’s apart. If I had to pick just one, though, I’d say it’s the people. We have extraordinarily good people here. We’ve had tremendous CEOs and Board members who really care, who work hard and give their time to this hospital. They’re smart, they’re energetic, they get things done. St. Michael’s attracts great people—like Dr. Art Slutsky who’s recruited some of the best researchers in the world. And those people attract other great people. It’s a cycle.
People ask, what are the hospital’s assets? Well, this hospital’s assets walk down the stairs and out of the elevators every day. You can replace objects, but you can’t replace people.
Thank you, Bernie and Mildred Syron, for standing by our award-winning nursing team by providing a visionary gift that establishes the Bernie and Mildred Syron Nursing Excellence Program. This innovative program allows St. Michael’s to address three key nursing priorities that will help us support, recognize and retain our world-class nurses.
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