Harrowing, first-person medical experiences encouraged John Sperzel ’86 to make a career change at the beginning of 2020, when he assumed the helm of T2 Biosystems. The Boston area firm is addressing critical unmet healthcare needs such as sepsis, one of the deadliest and most expensive conditions in hospitals.
“Post-surgery infections can lead to sepsis, a condition that results in 270,000 deaths annually in the US and millions worldwide,” says Sperzel. The speed and accuracy of T2 Biosystems’ tests became of great interest to the accomplished healthcare executive while recovering from months of high-risk medical procedures.
“I was born without an ‘off switch’ and no matter what, you never give up,” says the former Panther quarterback. During the football season of his sophomore year, a serious bout of flu sent Sperzel to Speare Memorial Hospital. “We had a rule that if you didn’t practice you couldn’t play, so I checked out of the hospital, went to practice, and threw three touchdown passes the next day in a win over Bridgewater State.” His drive and determination propelled him post-graduation, beginning work as an account manager and rising steadily in responsibility. Sperzel achieved his first of three consecutive CEO positions in 2011.
In 2017 he was midway through an almost six-year stint as CEO of Chembio Diagnostics, Inc., a company focused on infectious diseases. While vacationing in Aruba, Sperzel was found unconscious and unresponsive, and airlifted to a hospital in Miami. He was subsequently transferred to Massachusetts General Hospital where, after enduring three surgeries in three days, he learned that his medical marathon was just beginning. He was diagnosed with Giant Cell Myocarditis, an extremely rare and rapidly fatal disorder that’s been diagnosed only 300 times in more than a century.
“The doctor told me I was going to be in the fight of my life,” says Sperzel. “My odds of survival were extremely low.”
He battled tenaciously. Sperzel was the highly unusual patient who remained awake while on life support so he could stay on top of doctors’ decisions. He and his family were told more than once that he had but days to live. A heart transplant was his only option, but the likelihood of receiving a matching donor heart was an obstacle due to Sperzel’s relatively rare blood type, one of many crucial hurdles that he ultimately cleared.
Post-transplant, he faced new challenges. “When you’re placed on life support the priority is protecting your body’s organs, which puts extremities at risk. The nerves in my legs were destroyed so I wasn’t able to walk.” Always aiming high, Sperzel set and met an incredibly ambitious rehabilitation goal of regaining his strength and relearning to walk in time to lead Chembio’s fourth quarter.
Since joining T2 Biosystems, Sperzel has initiated and led an important turnaround. On August 31, the firm received FDA Emergency Use Authorization for a new COVID-19 diagnostic test. “Critically-ill COVID-19 patients are susceptible to co-infections and secondary infections that can lead to sepsis. Our T2Dx platform can now be used to identify acute COVID-19 infections and optimize outcomes for hospitalized patients under intensive care,” he says.
The foundation for Sperzel’s demanding and consequential career was formed at Plymouth State. He credits his major in business management as well as communications and mathematics courses for providing valuable background, and an elective course on prescription drugs helped spur his interest in the healthcare industry. “I developed and honed many of my skills at Plymouth State, both in the classroom and on the playing field,” he says.
Sperzel has kept up with his alma mater via his son, Jeffrey Sperzel ’16, and through ties with football teammates. He made a generous contribution this year to the Plymouth Opportunity Scholarship Angel Fund, which goes directly to support students in need.
Along with his firm’s critical work, Sperzel is also busy writing a book to be subtitled, Powerful Lessons in Leadership, Strength, and the Will to Succeed. He won’t reveal the title until the planned January release date, but shares this bit of wisdom: “Your passion can intersect with and become your purpose.”
Plymouth State is looking forward to welcoming the alumni author to campus for a book signing when conditions permit.
Photo Credit: John Paraskevas/Newsday LLC