Mr. Estabrook  with model of Methodist Hospital

John W. Estabrook with a model of Methodist Hospital.

Before Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, John W. Estabrook was a Midwestern teenager with the usual interests: school, sports, girls. With World War II raging, he became a patriot.

Estabrook served in the Pacific as a boiler room engineer on an LST transport ship, what sailors called “a long, slow target.”

By war’s end, he was too sick to be sent home. He had developed tuberculosis, then a highly contagious, potentially fatal lung disease.

For two years, Estabrook was kept on mandatory bedrest at a VA-contracted sanitorium, enduring painful treatments that collapsed his lung to rest it from the infection.

An outspoken young man with little patience or enthusiasm for the care received and inefficiencies observed, Estabrook voiced his frustrations. Repeatedly.

The physician who ran the facility told his unhappy patient, “You complain so much. Maybe you should go into hospital administration and fix it.”

That’s exactly what Estabrook did.

In 1951, while enrolled in business administration at the University of Omaha (now UNO), Estabrook met with Rev. Bret Lyle, superintendent of Methodist Hospital, then at 36th and Cuming. Rev. Lyle hired Estabrook as an administrative intern at $125 a month.

“I scrubbed floors, ran the elevator and night switchboard,” Estabrook said. “I did laundry, bookkeeping, bedpans, every job in the hospital.”

When Rev. Lyle retired in 1959, Estabrook took his place as Methodist Hospital’s first professionally trained hospital administrator. Within a year, revenue increased 10 percent. Estabrook led the way to new efficiencies, innovations and financial success based upon a truly patient-centered culture of caring.

“Value is not only determined by cost, but by the quality of care provided to every patient,” Estabrook said.

“Treat patients with dignity, compassion and empathy. Your attitude influences patients’ response to treatment.”

“Caring was woven into the fabric of his work,” said Ruth Freed, PhD, RN, former vice president of Methodist Hospital’s patient care services. “Mr. Estabrook kept his hand on the pulse of organization while always moving forward and raising the bar.”

Methodist Hospital’s reputation for excellence grew as Estabrook implemented Nebraska’s first surgical suite with adjacent recovery room, first ICU, first telecobalt therapy unit, first specially trained hospital IV team, first nationally accredited hospital blood bank and first 24/7 emergency department.

Estabrook was committed to creating the ideal health care environment, and he looked west to 84th and Dodge, where Omaha was projected to grow. A new 328-bed Methodist Hospital opened in 1968, built from the ground up with the most modern features, including 14 operating rooms, a coronary care unit and Nebraska’s first linear accelerator. One surgeon called Methodist “the Cadillac of medical facilities in Omaha.”

For 41 years, Estabrook led with vision, humility and respect for the responsibilities entrusted to him. He retired as President Emeritus of Methodist Health System in 1992.

In 2006, the Methodist Cancer Center was renamed to honor John W. Estabrook, the health care innovator described by John Fraser, president and CEO of Methodist Health System, as “Methodist’s George Washington.”

Fraser points to Estabrook as the modern-day founder of the caring culture that continues to makes Methodist “The Meaning of Care.”

“I learned so much from being a patient,” Estabrook said. “We can have the nicest bricks and mortar, and the best technology, but without our people, we’re nothing.”

For more stories about Methodist Health System’s amazing 125-year history, or to share your own story, visit

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