Members of the not-for-profit WorldVistA organization took time from their four-day community meeting in Tempe, Ariz., to remember one of their own.
Tom Ackerman worked as an employee of the Veterans Affairs Department for only a year or so, and did contract work on the VAs VistA clinical IT system for only about two years more, according to his son, William Ackerman, of Bolingbrook, Ill., who works as a programmer of medical-device interfaces for the VA. Yet the elder Ackerman, who in the early 1970s taught himself the Massachusetts General Hospital Utility Multi-Program System, or MUMPS, programming language and database system on which the VA system is based, became an early activist of the MUMPS Development Committee. It was through the committee, his son said, that he met, befriended and became a collaborator and co-conspirator with many VA programmers who in the early 1980s surreptitiously developed the earliest versions of the VAs clinical computer system over the opposition of their superiors, his son said.
Tom Ackerman, who ran M Systems Plus, a sole-proprietorship programming company based in Atlanta, spent much of his life as a contributor to the VAs clinical computing systems pushing the envelope on what the MUMPS language and the system could produce, according to his son and colleagues. He was a founder of WorldVistA when it organized in 2002.
Tom Ackerman, of Duluth, Ga., died Oct. 24, 2008, after complications from surgery at age 72.
His death came between the semiannual meetings of the organization devoted to implementing the VistA clinical IT system in the public and private sectors outside the VA both in the U.S. and abroad. Several of the WorldVistA members attending the Tempe gathering at Arizona State University, including programmers who have worked on the VA system as long as Tom Ackerman, took turns telling stories about him and screened an extended educational film on the care and training of parakeets starring a young Tom Ackerman, a life-long bird lover.
He did not act his age, his son said, provoking a peal of knowing laughter.
Ackerman approached life with both passion and a sense of urgency and was just as passionate about the potential of the VistA system in healthcare, his friends and son said.
He wanted to see the system promoted to everybody because he thought it was the greatest thing since sliced bread, William Ackerman said. He loved working. The day my dad retired was the day they lowered him into the ground. Even though he didnt make a lot of money, he always had fun. He loved teaching MUMPS. He loved teaching VistA.
Frederick Rick Marshall, a VA programmer for two decades and a past president of WorldVistA, remembered fondly Ackermans ineffable ability to elicit cooperation among contentious parties through the liberal applications of creativity, persistence and humortraits Marshall said he has sought to incorporate in his own relationships.
I first met Tom in the MUMPS Development Committee meetings, Marshall said. You would think a language standardization committee would not be a hotbed of humor and laughter, but youd be wrong. One of the reasons youd be wrong was his good nature. The combination of persistence and good nature would cause people to give in.
Tom Ackerman demonstrated that VistA could be used for things other than healthcare. He took the core components of the system and built a database application still in use today by the armed services in Bangladesh to maintain its inventory of aircraft parts.
He demonstrated it was an application-building suite, Marshall said. He used Fileman (a core VistA component) in ways that other people didnt. He found bugs that others didnt.
When Tom Ackerman would call, there typically would be a problem that needed attention, almost always immediately, whether you liked it or not, he said.
There wasnt really any saying no, Marshall said, adding, you always took the call because you wanted to hear his smile across the telephone wire.
Brian Lord, chief executive officer and owner of Sequence Managers Software, Durham, N.C., a vendor of VistA-based clinical IT systems, a former VA programmer and a former officer of WorldVistA, wrote a eulogy for Tom Ackerman that was sent out on the listserv of the Hardhats, an organization of VA programmers and friends of the clinical IT system they developed.
Lord didnt make the recent WorldVistA meeting, but agreed to allow his comments to be reprinted here, which echo many of the remembrances that Ackermans friends expressed in Tempe.
Tom Ackerman was my friend and in my seven or so years of knowing him, I realized that Tom was missing some things that all of us take for granted. Tom didn't seem to possess a frown; if he did it didnt come out long, and even an argument with him ended with everyone smiling. He was missing that piece that makes us forget about or ignore what is important to others. He seemed to have an almost mystical sense of what was important to people and he focused on it.
He didn't have time to waste; when my 7-year-old son showed him his pet parakeet (Little), Tom insisted on showing him how to train him to do tricks, and how to play with him properly. On countless times when I said I was stumped on a problem, he said, Well, lets look at it together right now. When we discussed talking to a third person about work, he would instantly get that other person on the phone with us, (sometimes regardless of how late it was).
He was missing the part that said work was supposed to be boring; for him, it was always exciting and fun. He was missing the part of people that keep them from telling jokes you know no one will laugh at, but he told them anyway, and we always laughed.
He wasnt missing a couple things. He wasnt missing friends, he wasnt missing a wonderful family that it was clear he loved very much, he wasnt missing a keen mind. He certainly wasnt missing respect, which he had in abundance.
Now, however, I find that I miss him and his friendship.