Hospice director takes position at American University in Iraq

Thomas Hallahan’s departure comes as Hospice of Martha’s Vineyard becomes Medicare-certified.

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Tom Hallahan is leaving as executive director of Hospice of Martha's Vineyard to take a university job in Iraq. — Jeremy Driesen

After five years heading Hospice of Martha’s Vineyard, executive director Thomas Hallahan is starting the next chapter of his life — halfway across the world, as an associate provost at the newly established American University of Iraq, Baghdad (AUIB).

Iraq will be the seventh country Hallahan has lived or worked in since 2012, when he was a Fulbright scholar at the University of Jordan in Amman. Hallahan’s time in Amman was life-changing for himself and his son, and inspired a passion for the region.

The following year, Hallahan took a job at the American University of Beirut. After that, Hallahan moved to Doha, Qatar, to teach at Hamad Medical Center for several years. His career path then brought him to the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in Palestine. He then spent a week doing work in Kuwait City, Kuwait. Two years ago, he did consulting work in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. 

“I’m an academic, but I also spent the past 15 years consulting with governments and different agencies and NGOs around the rights of people with disabilities, in regard to healthcare policy,” Hallahan said.

Now he’s headed back to academia, but says he welcomes doing more policy work if he’s tapped for it.

His new job will be as the associate provost of the colleges of health at the American University of Iraq, Baghdad (AUIB). He will oversee the school of medicine, the school of dentistry, the school of pharmacy, the school of nursing, and the school of health sciences.

AUIB is built around dictator Saddam Hussein’s former Water Palace, next to the Baghdad International Airport.

The self-contained campus officially opened its doors this month. The university is Iraqi-owned, and is not affiliated with other American Universities overseas, or the school in Washington, D.C.

Hallahan is set to jet on May 8. Due to his work at Hospice of Martha’s Vineyard, Hallahan is planning to get vaccinated before he leaves. He’s also offered to work on the COVID-19 protocols at AUIB.

Before his time in the Middle East, Hallahan had worked in South Africa, and wanted to return there or to Cambodia, where his son was born. After talking with people at the Fulbright program, the opportunity to go to Jordan came up, but Hallahan said he had reservations about going to the Middle East, thinking it was dangerous.

“I was so unaware of my level of Arabphobia and Islamophobia,” Hallahan said. “But I was old enough to say, ‘This is being presented to you. Go.’”

When he arrived, Hallahan said, he and his family became entrenched in the community, and he realized how uninformed he was about the sociopolitical dynamics across the Middle East. He added that the aura of the region’s ancient history and the incredible food have always stuck with him.

“It calls for me, because it was just so welcoming. The experience ended up being that the fears and anxieties I had were very much for naught,” he said. “We all think that we really understand and know, and we so don’t.”

Hallahan’s departure comes at a time of transition for Hospice of Martha’s Vineyard, as the organization expands its services and becomes Medicare-certified.

As executive director, Hallahan led the organization that has provided 40 years of grief counseling and end-of-life support on the Island — all outside Medicare.

“Being executive director has been such a privilege to be a part of the good work they do here,” he said. “We all support, board and staff, this move to enhance and expand our services.”

The expansion decision was officially voted on in July after two years of discussion and study of Hospice of M.V.’s services, and will allow the organization to continue to offer the services it has always offered, but be able to add the hospice Medicare component to it.

Initially, not having the Medicare certification meant Hospice of M.V. would not have federal government oversight. It also meant that people with medical conditions seeking hospice services were not able to receive benefits such as covering their prescriptions or medical equipment near the end of their lives. Those people would be referred to a Medicare-certified hospice on the Island, but based and owned on Cape Cod.

“Our mission is to be able to offer hospice, end-of-life care for all people on the Island,” Hallahan said. “What I was finding is that we weren’t always meeting our mission.”

He said Hospice of Martha’s Vineyard will continue to offer the same services, such as palliative care and grief counseling and end-of-life support, but now be able to meet all the needs of those who seek their services.

“It’s doing what we’ve done for 40 years really well, and what we’re so beloved for, and now putting the Medicare hospice piece in place,” Hallahan said.

As talks began on making the transition, Hallahan told Hospice M.V. leadership that it might be best if an executive director with more Medicare experience took over. A search committee is made up of three board members and two community members, who will review the job description and possibly hire an interim executive director.

Getting Medicare certification is a lengthy process. Hospice of M.V. is working with a committee, advisory group, a consultant, and the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital. Certification is estimated to be complete by the end of the year, or in early 2022.

“Our community is amazing with financial support, knitting and sewing things, volunteering, making soups, baking bread, bringing in flowers,” Hallahan said. “There’s a ton of people on the Island that do that, and that’s why we love this place and live here.”

While his new job will take him far away, Hallahan, an Oak Bluffs resident and former Dukes County commissioner, said he’ll be back on the Island.

“I live in the best town on the Island, Oak Bluffs,” Hallahan said. “I’m a ‘proud to be from O.B.’ person.”