Michael reveals all in ‘After the Roof Caved In’

Michael with his wife Kathleen and daughter Elizabeth.

One of Ireland’s most successful ever Irish Americans, Michael Dowling has penned his gripping life story which will be available in local book shops shortly.
‘After the Roof Caved In’ is Dowling’s rags-to-riches story of his life and journey from his humble upbring in west Limerick to his realisation of the power of education and his eventual departure from his home to attend university in Cork, and onward through his life as he gradually improved himself and his circum-stances to today leading New York’s biggest health care provider, Northwell Health.
It chronicles his lifelong effort to rise above the circumstances into which he was born and to create the sort of life he dreamed possible. Today, dedicated Limerick hurling fan, Michael Dowling is leading up New York’s response to the scourge of coronavirus.
In 2016, the Limerick man gave a lengthy interview on his life and achievements with this scribe which is recounted hereunder.
Michael Dowling was born in Glenroe and after a couple of months moved to Knockaderry in the west Limerick heartland. His father Jack was a Limerick County Council employee who had to retire prematurely due to ill health and mother Meg, a native of Glenroe, developed a serious hearing impairment in her childhood.
Michael was the eldest of five, Joe, Seán Mary and Patrick. “Back in those days, there were many people in a similar situation, it was a poor part of the country” he said.
Early education for the man that one day would head up one of New York’s biggest employers was Ahalin N.S. and from there he received his secondary education in Newcastle West. Third level education was at U.C.C. where he graduated with an Arts degree and a Higher Diploma in Education.
Going to third level college was something that Michael aspired to from a very young age and was single minded in its pursuit. One day he met a local farmer whose son was preparing to go to college, the farmer said to Michael, who is now one of the most influential people in health care in the United States “It is a pity that someone like you can never go to college.”
It was typical of the attitude in many parts of rural Ireland at the time but Michael, rather than taking umbrage at the comment, it only strengthened his resolve to go to college. “That was a very motivating statement and I thank him for it because it motivated me. I remember leaving and walking home thinking that “I am going to go to college and I am not going to be held back just because somebody thinks that I can’t do it.” In many ways it was one of the most positive things that was said to me, though it was not nice at the time. It motivated me more so than I would have been motivated otherwise,” he recalled.
From an early age, Michael Dowling worked during the summer holidays to help with college expenses and to boost the family budget. “I went to England at 15 and worked in steel factories outside Crawley, London. I always wanted to go to college but I also wanted to help out at home because things were pretty difficult at home financially. I ended up coming to the U.S. and working there during the summer. For three years I would spend five months of the summer working in New York and the rest of the year in U.C.C.”

Moving to the United States
On completing his education in U.C.C. he returned to the U.S. with no intention of staying there. “I came over to make some money and helping out but like everything, things happen in life, circumstances change and I ended up staying here.
On his return to New York, he worked in construction, as a plumber and on the docks on the west side of Manhattan.
He entered Fordham University from where he graduated with a Masters degree and ended up being offered a post on the teaching staff of the college. He went on to become Assistant Dean and then Professor of Social Studies at the Fordham University Graduate School of Social Service.
While working and teaching in Fordham he embarked on further studies in Columbia to study for his doctorate at night.
When he was about to complete his doctorate, he received a very important call for the Office of the Governor of the state of New York offering him a position in his administration. Mario Cuomo was the Governor of New York at the time. “After going back and forth on it for a while, I eventually said yes and so I ended up taking a position in the government.”
Michael Dowling was soon on the fast track to the top in the Cuomo adminis-tration which continued in office until 1994 and over the years, he was continually promoted and ended up being Director of Health, Education and Human Services for the state of New York. He progressed to being the Commissioner of Social Services for the state of New York and deputy Secretary to the Governor, the holder of which office is the Governor’s top advisor.
On completing a 12 year stint in the Governor’s office, Dowling worked in insurance for a couple of months before being recruited to become the Chief Operating Officer of one of New York’s biggest Hospitals, North Shore. “We started to expand back then, grow the system, acquiring lots of hospitals and doing a lot mergers, and within a couple of years we had ten hospitals as part of the organisation.”
Michael Dowling became CEO in 2001 of what had evolved into Northwell Health and today it has an annual turnover of 11 billion dollars in revenue and employing 73,000 employees and is the largest private employer in the state of New York. Northwell Health now has 21 hospitals, 500 ambulatory outpatient locations, a Medical School, a Nursing School, a Corporate University, a big Research Operation, an insurance company, a major home care company and has a facility for creating new businesses and starting new companies. “We continue to expand and I am currently working on three additional hospitals, we open up a new ambulatory site every two weeks, we hire 175 people per week,” he outlined.
The secret of Michael’s success is demanding high standards of those around him and he has no difficulty with dispensing with the services of those that do not measure up to his high standards. “No problem at all in firing people, the key to any successful organisation is having the right people, if you do not have the right people; you have got to make changes. Nobody likes doing this but if somebody is not performing or does not have the right attitude, then they do not work here. It is the key to success because there are so many good people out there, why waste your time on somebody that does not want to commit to doing their role,” he insisted.
The Knockaderry man has chaired and continues to chair a number of national organisations and has interacted with most of the national leaders. He is a former chairman of the North American Board of the Smurfit School of Business at University College Dublin which he held for four years until four years ago when he stepped down but is still a member of the board.
Michael, who travels regularly to Ireland was a member of the Irish Government’s Strategic Advisory Group on Hospital Groups in 2013 and he met Taoiseach, Enda Kenny on a couple of occasions and gave a number of talks around the country. “The health care situation in Ireland needs a lot of change, they have to be willing to break some eggs to make some changes. If you are not willing to break eggs you are not going to make an omelette, you have got to make tough decisions if you want to make a change, sometimes there are decisions you do not like making but they have to be made. If you do not surround yourself with the best people, you are not going to be successful long term.”

Since that 2016 interview, in the face of the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, New York turned to Michael Dowling to lead the city’s response to the outbreak. The President and CEO of Northwell Health answered a call from New York Governor Andrew Cuomo to lead the fight back.
On taking on the greatest health care challenge facing mankind in a century, the Limerick man said, “It will put stress on the health care system, it will stress us to our maximum but we have to respond to that and deal with it. I am an optimist, my view is no matter how bad it gets, we will respond and respond intelligently because you can only deal with this if you come with the perspective of optimism, you are going to win, it is not going to defeat us. That is the message that needs to come nationally.”
Last Monday, America administered the first dose of the coronavirus vaccine, Sandra Lindsay, a critical care nurse in Queens Hospital in New York made history by being the first to receive the jab watched over in person by Michael Dowling.
Michael Dowling has penned the story of the challenge he faced and how he met it in a book ‘Leading Through a Pandemic: The Inside Story of Humanity, Innovation, and Lessons Learned’ During the Covid-19 Crisis, which delivers the journey behind the frontlines of Covid-19 at Northwell Health and in New York.

Grand Marshal
Michael Dowling led the 256th New York St. Patrick’s Day parade down 5th Avenue in 2017 and he is the first from the hospital sector in the parade’s history to be its Grand Marshal. “It was humbling, it was a wonderful recognition, it came as a surprise. It is a wonderful position to be in, representing the emigrant experience, representing in many ways what is great about the United States and representing the Irish experience. We have to remember that the Irish experience is unique in many ways but is also the experience of many other nationalities. To be asked to lead the parade is an unbelievable positive honour which I am delighted they felt I deserved that recognition. It is not just one day, the 17th March is the big day but there are a lot of events around it.”

Like every boy growing up in rural Ireland in the 1950s and 1960s, hurling was the main pastime and Michael was no exception. He honed his skills in the ancient game with local club Knockaderry before going on to U.C.C. and eventually making the Limerick senior hurling team. He is the proud hurler of National Hurling League medal with Limerick in 1971. “When I was playing hurling with U.C.C., I was fortunate enough to get on the Limerick senior team. I did not play for a long period of time because I had to come back to the United States to make a living. Richie Bennis, Tony O’Brien, Bernie Hartigan, Eamonn Grimes, Pat Hartigan, Eamon Cregan were on the team at that time. I played a number of games for Limerick but I had a very bad back which I have suffered with for the last 40 years and that necessitated two back surgeries. I regretted not to being able to continue hurling but you have to make choices in life.”
The Limerick man’s achievements have not gone unnoticed on both sides of the Atlantic and he reluctantly admits that he is the recipient of well over 100 awards, including the prestigious Ellis Island Medal of Honour for his life’s work in health care and administration in New York state. “We are very involved and we are one of the biggest players in New York state, it comes with the territory if you have been around as long as I have been. You have got to keep making sure you do the right thing, get passionate about what you do and make sure you make a difference, if you do not make a difference about what you do, why do it at all?”
In 2018 he was named among ‘A Most Influential Health Care Leader’ by the Modern Healthcare Magazine for a 12th consecutive year. To mark the recognition, the publication Profiles in Medicine described the man with humble Limerick roots as ‘Dowling is the toprated hospital executive in New York State on this year’s list. He overseas an organisation with nearly €12 billion in annual revenue, building culture of high quality care with focus on innovation that has helped drive the growth of Northwell Health which now has 23 hospitals and more than 665 outpatient facilities throughout the New York Metropolitan area.
His ability to grow the health system into a vast clinical, academic and research enterprise builds on a legacy of innovation dating back to his 12 years of public service overseeing health, education and human services for former New York Governor, Mario Cuomo.’
This year he is the recipient in his native Ireland of a Presidential Distinguished Service Award. The awards celebrate the diversity of the global Irish family. The contribution of the Irish abroad has been immense, and the diversity of their achievements in their many walks of life, can be seen in this year’s awardees.
Michael lives in Long Island with his wife Kathy who he met in New York. She is formerly Kathy Butler and is of Irish descent. The couple have two children, Brian and Elizabeth.
He may be in the United States for over four decades but the lure and bond with Knockaderry and Limerick is still as strong as when he left to become one of the most influential players in the social, economic, educational and political life of the state of New York. “Growing up in Knockaderry was a great place, materially many families had issues, they were not that well off but it was great community to grow up in, I hold a deep affection for Knockaderry to this day. Even though I have been out of it for a long time, Knockaderry is still home.”
Michael Dowling’s books are available on Amazon and from early 2021 will be in all book shops.
Leading Through a Pandemic: The Inside Story of Humanity, Innovation, and Lessons Learned, the story of the pandemic from the front line and After the Roof Caved In a heartfelt, deeply moving meditation on the extraordinary life of an extraordinary Limerick man, a leader of men, a man among men.