• Building Bridges By Faith
  • 2017 Catholic Health Assembly

Nursing career takes detour into Catholic health care leadership role


When Mary Ellen Trstensky joined the Future Nurses Club at Lanphier High School in Springfield, Ill., she had no idea that first step would take her into an historic surgery, leadership of the Hospital Sisters Health System and top honors from CHA.

"That is something I always say to people: Whatever your role is, be open to a lot of detours," she said. "I started out as a nurse and yet opportunities kept presenting themselves. There were other types of nursing at the bedside that I had never envisioned. There was almost an explosion of new ways to help people and I happened to be standing there."

After a more than 50-year career and a lifetime of contributions to the Catholic health ministry, Sr. Jomary Trstensky, OSF, was honored with a 2017 Lifetime Achievement Award at the Catholic Health Assembly.

Currently chairwoman of the Hospital Sisters Ministries board, the public juridic sponsor of Hospital Sisters Health System established in 2015, Sr. Trstensky previously served as provincial superior of the American Province of the Hospital Sisters of St. Francis (2007-2015), as well as president (1989-2006) and executive vice president (1988-89) of the health system.

Good timing
Early in her career, she was chosen as part of the surgical team that performed the first open-heart surgery in Springfield at HSHS St. John's Hospital on Feb. 6, 1965. Led by cardiac surgeon Dr. Robert Harp, the team "laid the foundation for the heart surgery program in a community hospital setting without the benefit of a medical school," Sr. Trstensky said. "Those were exciting times in health care as cardiac cath, heart surgery and renal dialysis were all introduced," she added.

Mary Starmann-Harrison, president and chief executive of HSHS, said Sr. Trstensky played an "integral role in creating a world class heart surgery center," the Prairie Heart Institute. Today its 75 cardiologists are affiliated with all HSHS hospitals in Illinois. HSHS includes 15 local systems and physician practices in Illinois and Wisconsin.

Joe Neidenbach, former administrator for HSHS St. Vincent Hospital in Green Bay, Wis., credits her with creating a partnership between St. Vincent, HSHS St. Mary's Hospital Medical Center in Green Bay, and the Prevea Clinic in 1996 that he said has ensured the continued presence of Catholic health care in northeast Wisconsin.

Fundamentals of leadership
Starmann-Harrison describes her predecessor as "very focused and very determined and very dedicated to the mission of the organization" and to patients. "She always brings to the table a special consideration for the poor and vulnerable."

Starmann-Harrison, one of four individuals who nominated Sr. Trstensky for the CHA honor, wrote, "I have been personally influenced by Sr. Jomary's leadership approach which is so effective in its simplicity: listen to all points of view, gather the facts, take time to discern and then provide straight-forward and to-the-point direction that is based on what is best for those whom the organization serves. She has earned tremendous respect among her peers."

Bishop Kevin Vann of Orange, Calif., has known Sr. Trstensky since 1972, when he was interning as a medical technologist at St. John's Hospital and she was a staff nurse in the cardiac intensive care unit. He believes her concern for the vulnerable is rooted in her growing up with her younger brother Tom, who had Down syndrome.

"My brother Tom influenced my entire family my entire life," Sr. Trstensky said. "We learned at home how to care for others who needed us. It was my greatest learning experience."

In return for that care, she "was a beneficiary of his unconditional love," she added. Although Tom died in 2007, "we had a pretty good life with him," she said. "He was well loved and well cared for, and not a day goes by that I don't think of him."

In nominating Sr. Trstensky for the CHA honor, Bishop Vann also praised her for her calming presence in stressful situations at the hospital and her wise counsel in later years as he navigated some "big organizational challenges" in his diocese.

Mission outreach
Starmann-Harrison said Sr. Trstensky has been a champion of Hospital Sisters Mission Outreach, which has collected and distributed more than $60 million worth of usable medical equipment and supplies to hospitals and clinics in 87 countries since its founding in 2002. Sr. Trstensky credits Sr. Joan Winkler, then the provincial superior of the Hospital Sisters of St. Francis, and the rest of the provincial leadership team at that time for the establishment of the outreach organization.


Mission Outreach allowed the congregation  to continue an involvement with developing countries at a time when "the sisters really were no longer in a position to go other countries and start new foundations," Sr. Trstensky said. "In the hospital business we could get our hands on used equipment and supplies that other countries could use."

Guiding lay leaders
Sr. Trstensky mentored the administrators of HSHS hospitals throughout her career in health administration. Now, as chair of Hospital Sisters Ministries, she is a guiding influence for lay people on the sponsor board.

PJP board member Deacon Allison Laabs, a former executive vice president of St. John's Hospital, said Sr. Trstensky saw the necessity of moving to the new sponsorship model, and she led the historic transition from sponsorship by the Hospital Sisters of St. Francis to the PJP model.

"Sr. Jomary's willingness to continue in a key role on the Hospital Sisters Ministries board I am sure has given the remaining members of the congregation the confidence they need to literally see their 'child' and their own legacy in safe hands," Laabs said.

Sr. Trstensky, 79, sees her own path as not unlike the one taken by the earliest members of her religious congregation, who came to the United States in 1875 to found St. John's Hospital.

"They did not even speak English but they rolled up their sleeves and responded to the needs of the people," she said. "The people in front of me might have needed something I didn't feel capable of providing, but I grew. I see each person as a unique individual and respond to that uniqueness."


Copyright © 2017 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States
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