Afoundria Co-Founder and CEO, Jon McBride, shares his
personal journey of how and why he got into healthcare and
eventually formed Afoundria, beginning with the sudden
and deeply transformative loss of his brother in 1992.
Author’s note, Spring 2016:
This is a true story of the way I remember events and my feelings from almost 25 years ago. I made a few notes even back then - in 1992 - but for many reasons I never paused to reflect on all of those dark days, until now.
January 15, 1992
I walk slowly up the steps of the building on the base, Naval Air Station Corpus Christi. I’m dreaming. Just a dream. The nightmare hasn’t even begun, because although I’m drowning I cannot even wish for another breath. Am I breathing?
My brother’s body lies somewhere in the building before me. This white sterile military hospital building with its moonless cloudy night as a backdrop has a terrible truth inside. I can’t quite understand why the military people keep talking to me. What are they trying to say? In gentle and well intentioned tones they speak, but it is difficult to understand them while my world is underwater. Can’t they see that I’m drowning?
It simply can’t be true. Richard has a wife. A 19 month old daughter. His second child isn’t due for another two or three months. He is retiring from the Navy in 3 months. He’s 29. Was 29? Are you sure he died? How do you know? What am I doing here?
“You’ll identify the body for the family,” is only a distant echo. The set of strangers now walking me into the building have driven me and my friend from the married-officers quarters to this place in a freak convoy of sedans, silence and sorrow.
I step into the elevator which starts moving, but I am not sure in which direction. Did we take the elevator up or down? I usually pay close attention to details like this. I know we must have gone up. The doors open and I am vomited out. Dim lights; everything on the floor is dark. I sense only stillness. Aren’t there other patients here? Isn’t anyone alive? It’s the morgue. Nobody needs lights here.
Death permeates my senses. The smell of nothing, the smell of sterility. My stomach turns and tightens. The group of strangers and my friend walk into The Room. I don’t want to see anything but an empty room. Jesus’ tomb was empty, can’t this be empty too?
No, it can’t.
There is a body lying in the center of the room, on the table covered with a sheet. Brother? The lights are turned down very low. I smell seawater or tears. One of the doctors warns that the body is badly damaged and adds “blah, blah blah blah,” and everyone stares at me. They must need some answer, but my mind is not comprehending their words. The doctor pulls back the sheet. I nod. My friend asks them to leave me in the room alone so I can be with my brother. The group starts to say “blah blah blah”, but finally acquiesces. They leave. They stay just outside the door.
I stand over Richard’s body, but I am not sure if time is passing until someone leans into the room and asks if everything is OK. I’m startled, but my friend asks them to wait.
We had so many dreams and plans and things to do. We were going to go to baseball games together. We were going to play croquet when we were old. With my sister, who is expecting her first child, we were going to watch our children grow up together. Things that will never be done, not under this sun.
As I stand in the room with my brother, I can’t help but wonder if they could have saved him. But he is wounded beyond repair, a raggedy doll sent spinning from the sky after a midair plane collision. He is still my brother. He will always be my brother.
I gently touch his face. He has stubble from a five o’clock shadow, stubble that will never grow into a beard. What happens to the food that he ate for breakfast, will it simply rot now? So many thoughts of life and death that I have never really considered.
I am not sure how long I’ve been standing in this room with him, but the realization sinks in that he is not really here anymore and never will be again. Although my instincts tell me I should stay with him, I know it’s time to leave this place.
The Room, it seems, is empty after all.
My brother Richard and his crewmate died in a tragic aircraft accident on January 14, 1992. Piloting over Corpus Christi Bay, they were helping another aircraft crew that had sent a distress call moments before. Although they perished, thankfully the crew they helped was able to safely land.
This terrible event was life-changing for me, my whole immediate family and probably for many involved. It was a crucible moment in my life, either way. In case you're wondering, a "crucible moment" is a transformative experience through which an individual comes to a new or an altered sense of identity (Crucibles of Leadership, by Warren G. Bennis and Robert J. Thomas, September 2002).
For me, this meant that I first had to come with terms with the fact that my whole family had forever changed and future plans I had envisioned would never happen. Eventually, I had to make a decision to move forward and let the experience fuel my desire to make positive changes in the world around me rather than be drawn down a spiral of depression and guilt. That of course still happens from time to time, but I try to focus on the good around me as much as I can.
Thinking back to that night so long ago, walking away from the military hospital morgue, I had two coherent thoughts - and I promised myself I wouldn't forget. One was that I did not want to litter ever again. Not that I was necessarily a litter-bug myself, but as I watched from across the hospital parking lot I was disturbed to see someone casually toss a cigarette butt from a car. This was certainly not a felony, but I was thinking to myself, “my brother’s daughter lives here, and that’s not respecting the world she’ll live in.” Who knows where thoughts come from? It was a strange thought to be sure.
The second thought was that I wanted to help people live longer so they could be with the ones they loved. I wanted to make a difference. I was not gifted with the skills and mental toughness required of a medical doctor or a nurse (read: I was scared of blood and only knew pig-latin); but I was an ultra-nerd who understood technology and believed we could create technologies to greatly help people.
This latter thought became the “why” in so many decisions in my life. It’s the primary reason why within the month after my brother’s death, I chose to major in Computer Science to create solutions to help people. It’s also why I work in healthcare today. Healthcare technology, to be exact.
As I began my professional career, I worked as a software programmer to help emergency room clinicians manage life-or-death situations. I worked at St. Jude Hospital trying to help researchers save children who are dying way too young. I worked for a Johns Hopkins startup to help doctors work with other doctors around the world. I worked in healthcare administration which I learned is a lot more like banking than I would have hoped. And now I work in a seemingly forgotten corridor of healthcare called post-acute care; a place where grandmothers and grandfathers are often guided, placed or pushed into during their last years of life. I’ve learned that while I do strive to help people live longer, I’d really like for them to live well, too.
Working in healthcare I have had the opportunity to hear a lot of stories from others about why they chose to work in this challenging and oft-maligned industry. There are many sad and heartbreaking stories of loss, many frustrating stories that turn out well because (and probably only because) someone chose to do something radical - against the grain of what they were told to do. But as I’ve worked in healthcare, I have learned that why we do something is just as important as what we do. It drives us to work harder and accomplish things that others dare not try.
Oh, and I still don’t litter, at least not intentionally. Find a garbage or recycling can, OK?
A NOTE OF THANKS
In the immediate aftermath of the accident, the Corpus Christi community was a beautiful presence for my family in otherwise bleak days. They never had the benefit of knowing that what they did for us truly mattered. In those moments I did not have the ability to show proper appreciation or let them know how very much they meant, but as I write this story now I can vividly recall the strangers from Corpus Christi sending food and flowers and hugs - offering support any way they could. Even a grocery chain (H-E-B) sent us treats, sandwiches and anything they could to help us out.
It's a quarter-century overdue, but on behalf of my brother, myself and my family, I’d like to thank the wonderful and amazing people of Corpus Christi from the bottom of my heart. Your city is aptly named.
Many thanks to Ashley Conway for her help in editing and inspiration to finally share this story; to MAJ Jonathan Silk (ret) for his leadership, friendship and critical feedback to creating and sharing this story - you are an amazing human being; and to my beautiful family and extended family thank you for providing loving and encouraging feedback - we are undoubtedly different today because of the events in this story, but eventually so many undeniably good things have been the fruit of tragedy's lessons.
Jon McBride II