SCL's 'good humor' brings giggles and gladness to patients and staff

December 15, 2014


Every year around Christmastime, the seven-member leadership team of the Mount Saint Vincent behavioral health treatment program in Denver dons Santa hats and regales the children they treat, the children's family members, the program's staff and visitors with a slapstick rendition of "The Twelve Days of Christmas." They leap as lords, pirouette as dancing ladies, milk as maids, swim as swans and squat as geese laying — all to the delight of the 100-plus spectators.

•	An associate at Lutheran Medical Center in Wheat Ridge, Colo., poses an elf in a creative scene for a holiday elf photo contest.
An associate at Lutheran Medical Center in Wheat Ridge, Colo., poses an elf in a creative scene for a holiday elf photo contest.

It really is fun for us — you see the kids laughing, and their legs bopping up and down, and everyone who comes truly enjoys it," said Sr. Amy Willcott, SCL, executive director of Mount Saint Vincent and a performer in the Christmas act.

Mount Saint Vincent, part of Denver-based SCL Health, provides residential treatment, day treatment and a school program for children who have been abused, neglected and traumatized. Sr. Willcott said, "For these kids, good humor cuts down walls and breaks down barriers, and we encourage that in kids who are very depressed or so lost in themselves. We challenge them to smile, and we tease them in a supportive way, to help them have that sense that there is a glimmer of hope."

In paying attention to fun and hospitality, the treatment facility is living out one of SCL Health's six values: "good humor," which the system defines as creating "joyful and welcoming environments." (The other values are caring spirit, excellence, integrity, safety and stewardship.)

Value buy-in
Good humor is not normally included in a health system's mission, vision and values statement, acknowledged Sr. Jennifer Gordon, SCL, interim senior vice president of mission integration for the eight-hospital system that operates in Colorado, Kansas and Montana. But, it resonates with staff throughout the system, she said, because good humor contributes to "the sense that the work we do has meaning and purpose" beyond providing medical care. "It's about affirming one another and taking the time to recognize that we're people, not robots."

•	Leaders of the Mount Saint Vincent pediatric behavioral health program reenact
Leaders of the Mount Saint Vincent pediatric behavioral health program reenact "The Twelve Days of Christmas" at the program's 2013 Christmas program.

Sr. Gordon said the inclusion of good humor as a value received widespread support during an extensive process to create one mission, one vision and one set of values for SCL Health. That effort was undertaken in the wake of a 2009 consolidation of SCL Health and a system it had affiliated with since 1998, Exempla Healthcare. The system held focus groups and conducted surveys with associates and community members; system leaders analyzed the results to create the mission, vision and values statement. Since the system adopted the statement in 2011, its mission integration, communications and human resources teams had been rolling out the mission, vision and values through town hall meetings, electronic communications, printed materials and other channels, in a process that officially ended a year ago. At welcoming events, new hires talk through what good humor and the system's other values mean to them and how they might live them out.

Leaders enjoy lighter moments too. Many leadership meetings include planned, or spontaneous activities that connect participants through laughter, said Brian Newsome, SCL Health director of public affairs, system communications and marketing. During one meeting, an executive awarded chocolate Oscars to executives who had "starred in" a video on stewardship. Another meeting included a video skit lampooning the many pitfalls of teleconferences, such as people dropping in and out of calls and dogs barking in the background when associates are dialing in from home.

Newsome noted, "Our chief executive (Michael Slubowski) has a fondness for Dilbert and uses the comics in his presentations, to make points."

Sr. Gordon noted the use of humor at SCL Health is about creating a joyful atmosphere in which people are acknowledged in a way that is personal and meaningful for them. Her favorite expressions of good humor at the system are in the little exchanges and kindnesses people use to acknowledge one another — a note of gratitude, a call to congratulate a colleague on a job well done or the simple courtesy of holding a door for another.

Stephanie Toledo, a greeter for eight years at SCL Health's Good Samaritan Medical Center in Lafayette, Colo., is well known in the system for expressing exuberant good humor as she welcomes hundreds of people each day. "I'm a hugger. I see people coming in, scared or worried, and I give them a hug. I say, 'I'll pray for you.' Hugs are like medicine."

Personalized medicine
In Wheat Ridge, Colo., at SCL Health's Lutheran Medical Center, and at that facility's Colorado Lutheran Home long-term care facility, staff take the time to get to know patients and residents personally and to use humor to help them feel good, said Carol Salzmann, vice president and executive director of the foundation and community development for the medical center. She recalled one of the many "joyful chaplains" on the campus who, at age 85, agreed to take a motorcycle ride with a patient's family member — all to please the patient, who was a cycle enthusiast. Salzmann also described Donna Marie Hill, a nurse at
Colorado Lutheran Home, who "truly believes that humor can open people up to good energy and positive exchanges between care partners and residents. … Donna loves to give all her residents a daily 'injection' of humor."

For instance, Hill often does a play on words with one resident's name, asking, "Ginger, what ails you today?" Salzmann said, "The resident bursts into laughter."

As senior director of learning and development for SCL Health, Andy Lawrence coordinates many orientation sessions for the system's new hires. He said good humor is "an opportunity to keep an emotional connection alive. … it can be as simple as a smile for a patient's family" when they are experiencing anxiety in the hospital setting.

Sr. Gordon agreed, "There's not always a lot of joy in health care. It's never fun to receive a challenging diagnosis, but we try to create an environment in which all of our patients and families are wrapped in welcome and joy."

Sr. Willcott at the children's behavioral treatment program, said during orientation she tells new staff members, "If you can't laugh or enjoy yourself every day here, this is not the place for you. We're here to provide a sense of joy and hope for these kids."


Copyright © 2014 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States
For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3477.

Copyright © 2014 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States

For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3490.