Ex-Green Beret leads Sanford clinic in Costa Rica

Clinic director has passion for health care, leadership, Sanford Health team

Jose Vasquez: A group of Sanford World Clinics health care providers stand in front of a sign that says "Centro Medico Metropolitano."

Jose Vasquez is the new director of Sanford World Clinic in Costa Rica. Here, we learn about the extensive experience the retired Green Beret brings to Sanford Health, his approach to leadership and his vision for the partnership with Hospital Metropolitano in Costa Rica.

From Dominican Republic to U.S.

Jose Vasquez was born in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, and moved to the United States at the age of 5. Living in Connecticut, both of his parents worked two jobs to provide a private education for their children — Vasquez and his older brother — and established the core values that help set them up for success. Vasquez’s parents continue to be his favorite heroes and role models.

“I’m living proof that the American dream is real,” Vasquez said.

Vasquez developed grit at an early age when he learned the importance of persistence through failure. In seventh grade, he didn’t make the basketball team. He spent every day after that practicing so he would make it in following years, ultimately becoming the captain for his high school basketball team.

Education and the Army

High school taught Vasquez important lessons like thinking critically, questioning everything and serving others.

At the age of 18, he joined the U.S. Army and headed off to basic training on the day of graduation. Vasquez recalls that his first leadership role in the military lasted 30 seconds, until his drill sergeant fired him for having unbuttoned pockets on his uniform.

Following that, Vasquez served in the Army Reserves and attended St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, where his propensity to lead and serve led him to become a resident assistant. Vasquez earned a degree in international relations. Vasquez also earned a master’s degree in international relations from Troy University in Alabama during his subsequent military service.

Becoming a Green Beret

After graduation, Vasquez continued his military career as a commissioned officer in the infantry. Vasquez quickly realized he wanted a greater challenge and “the opportunity to work with really stellar people.” He volunteered for Army Special Forces and ultimately earned the Green Beret. Vasquez says this reinforced core attributes, such as courage, perseverance, personal responsibility and adaptability, that he learned from childhood.

“My career as a Green Beret was amazing. I have traveled the world and worked through difficult challenges with some of the brightest, most innovative and courageous people I know,” Vasquez said.

Vasquez has led, organized or trained teams in upwards of 2,700 people and has experience working in Central and South America, Northern Europe, Scandinavia, Asia, the Middle East and Afghanistan. Most of Vasquez’s assignments entailed developing strategies to solve highly complex problems affecting nation-states.

Looking, yet again, for a greater challenge, Vasquez retired last year as a lieutenant colonel and Green Beret after 20 years of military service and decided to pursue a career in health care.

Joining Sanford Health

“I did not want my life to be defined by my military service,” Vasquez said. In January 2018, Vasquez put out a video explaining why he wanted to work in health care. What motivates him? Vasquez said, “I want to help others meet or exceed their potential to secure a better tomorrow.”

At Sanford Health, he feels he is doing that every day. His role is not to give people the answers but to help guide them toward a solution. And as he learned when he was young, you must fail early, fail often and fail forward to make progress.

More: Get to know Vasquez’s philosophy on goals and see his recommended reading list.

Vasquez found a connection with and decided to join Sanford Health in 2018 because. He appreciates that it is a forward-thinking organization that looks five or 10 years out. He also recognizes its flexibility in adjusting, rather than taking one system and applying it to everything. Moreover, he found the team at Sanford Health to be nimble, creative and innovative in solving difficult problems through its World Clinic program.

“I considered Sanford Health because its values aligned with mine, but I joined Sanford Health because of the team,” Vasquez said. “The team is gritty, always willing to help each other, yet radically candid during a disagreement.”

He said he sometimes feels like he never left the Green Berets with the team at World Clinic. They just find a way to get it done.

Trying to bring access to Costa Rica

Vasquez is based at Hospital Metropolitano in San Jose, Costa Rica, where he lives more than half the year.

Vasquez appreciates the unique health care challenges facing Costa Rica. “The quality of health care in Costa Rica is among the best in Latin America. The challenge is access,” he says. “Today, our goal is to support our partners in revolutionizing health care delivery in Costa Rica through innovation, technology and empowering care teams.”

Vasquez’s primary focus right now is implementing an electronic medical record in the coming months. He is also working on bringing telemedicine to reach rural areas. Vasquez says, “Our goal is to provide people in rural areas with accessible, quality specialty care that can scale beyond Costa Rica.”

Another goal at Hospital Metropolitano is empowering nurses, which ultimately will have a significant impact on how nursing is performed in the entire country.  “It’s pretty neat to be a plank-holder in so many cool projects that will impact so many people.”

Leadership philosophy

When he came to Sanford Health, Vasquez spent 90 days working with leaders at different levels and in different departments. That, combined with his years of military service and education, has provided him with a deep understanding of the importance of leadership.

“To be a good leader, you have to be a great follower,” he says. “Being humble, sharing vulnerability, having charity and respect, and offering a big smile, especially under pressure, has helped me to weather many storms.”

Vasquez emphasizes creating a safe environment where failure at trying is better than not trying at all, and where feedback within the team occurs often. According to Vasquez, this how the team gets better.

Vasquez also stresses the importance of having passion, purpose and autonomy in leading teams toward a shared goal and where people have the freedom to operate as long as they don’t sacrifice the values or culture of the organization — and don’t micromanage.

He also recognizes the importance of keeping people informed. Rather than surprising them with your decisions, he said it’s better to overcommunicate. This is a hard lesson he has learned over the years.

Emotional intelligence is important to Vasquez as well, and he strives to create a family atmosphere. This coincides with his final point: Disagreements are not fights; they’re discussions. When that family atmosphere is created, people are more willing to synchronize, come to an understanding and support each other during the rough times.

Past accomplishments and future goals

When asked what he’s most proud of so far, Vasquez points to his role in facilitating an exciting new partnership between two cultures, Hospital Metropolitano in Costa Rica and Sanford Health.

“You know you have established deep trust when a senior executive with over 25 years of international experience tells you that the reason he loves working with the Sanford team is because they come asking how Sanford can help, not how they need to change things in Costa Rica,” he said.

Second, he is proud of his team in Sanford Health and in Costa Rica. He said they are driven to truly “improve the human condition,” and everyone is running hard.

Third, Vasquez is grateful to have the support of the Sanford family. “I never met so many people with 20- or 30-plus years in an organization who were so willing to see me succeed, regardless of title or position.”

Looking toward the future, Vasquez has one major goal in mind: “When people think of health care in Costa Rica, I want them to think of Hospital Metropolitano first, and Sanford Health second.” He points out the opportunity to potentially influence 5 million people, the population of Costa Rica. Moreover, he wants the World Clinic model that has been set up there to spread throughout Central and South America, working by, with and through partners in Hospital Metropolitano.

Family life and interests

Vasquez includes his family in all career-related decisions he makes. “My biggest hobby is painting my little girl’s nails and being with my family,” he says.

Vasquez’s wife, Jennifer, is a chef, and they have four children. They live in Sioux Falls, which Vasquez fell in love with when he made the decision to join Sanford Health.

Outside of spending time with family, Vasquez also enjoys running, biking and other forms of exercise.

Final thoughts

Vasquez firmly believes his success is rooted in his ability to listen to his teams and being humble enough to learn from them. The support of the team at Sanford World Clinic is extremely important to him, and without them, he would not be able to do what he does.

“I love my job, my team, and I’m having a blast,” he says.

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Posted In Faces of Sanford Health, Innovations, Veterans

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