Sr. Ching treats everybody like family, with dignity and loving kindness

July 1, 2012

Sr. Agnelle Ching, OSF, has always considered herself to be, first and foremost, a teacher.

So one can imagine her surprise when, after 32 years of experience teaching grades 3 through 8 and serving in school administrative roles throughout New Jersey and upstate New York, she was asked to take charge of mission integration at St. Francis Healthcare System of Hawaii in 1991.

Yet it was almost as if life had come full circle with that appointment. It was an opportunity for Sr. Ching to return to her hometown of Honolulu and put her teaching skills to use once again. This time, her focus was to educate health system laity in the legacy of Blessed Marianne Cope, who brought Catholic health care to the islands in 1883, treating patients with leprosy at Moloka'i at the bidding of King David Kalakaua, and to teach Hawaiians of all ages how to decrease their health risks.

"I believe that the legacy of caring in the islands is based on a single premise: Wherever the needs are, that's where we want to be," says Sr. Ching.

That conviction has led Sr. Ching in her roles, first as a vice president and then as chief executive of St. Francis Healthcare, to reshape the emphasis of caring from a primary focus on the medical needs of the patient base to promoting healthy lifestyles by nourishing body, mind and spirit. Since 2007, when the Sisters of St. Francis of Syracuse, N.Y., sold their only two Hawaiian hospitals in Liliha and Ewa, Sr. Ching has initiated many programs — from an affordable independent living community to home care services to palliative care — to help people age gracefully and with dignity.

Through Sr. Ching's leadership and stewardship, St. Francis Healthcare was able to provide nearly 20 percent of its care in fiscal 2011 as charity care. The system, which also provides meals and outreach to the homeless, stretches its resources by using trained volunteers where possible and by securing grants, trusts and collaborations with other organizations and government agencies.

At the urging of Sr. Ching, now the system's chief sponsorship officer, St. Francis Healthcare is pursuing still more ways to better serve the health needs of its community, from dementia care services and 24/7 family fitness centers to programs to help youth decrease future health risks.

In recognition of both her leadership and her innovations in care, Sr. Ching is being recognized as the 2012 recipient of the Sr. Concilia Moran Award.

"Sr. Agnelle is truly a health care visionary. She is focused on maintaining quality of life throughout the entire cycle of life," says Jerry Correa, who in January succeeded Sr. Ching as president and chief executive at St. Francis Healthcare.

Putting people first
"Sr. Agnelle lives out the inspiration of Sr. Marianne Cope in her own life, always thinking of ways to better serve the people of Hawaii," says Susan Hashimoto, director of quality and compliance for St Francis Healthcare. "Her generosity of spirit cannot be overstated. It is present in her concern for the elderly, her delight at spending time with children, her demeanor with coworkers and even her passion for cooking, which is actually more about pleasing people than about culinary skill."

Adds Correa: "Sr. Ching's legacy is her steadfast determination to do the right thing for the people. With any new initiative, her first concern is not sustainability, but to serve the underserved. She believes in first providing a needed service, and then figuring out a way to support it financially."

Among Sr. Ching's many accomplishments at St. Francis Healthcare are establishing programs that teach children how their choices can impact their health. St. Francis Healthcare sends nurses into elementary schools to instruct children on good nutrition and hygiene and it sends the nurses into parishes and public forums to talk to adults about self-care, obesity and pandemic outbreaks.

Diabetes has a high prevalence among native Hawaiians and people of Samoan lineage in Hawaii. While some researchers believe members of these groups may be genetically predisposed to diabetes, lifestyle choices are a decisive factor. "We spend a lot of time trying to combat the obesity epidemic and teaching how to test for early diagnosis of the disease," says Sr. Ching. "We have even sponsored an aquaponics project to inspire kids to grow their own healthy food" in water.

Aging with dignity
Hawaii's growing senior population is the beneficiary of several initiatives founded and led by Sr. Ching. In May, the system opened Franciscan Vistas Ewa, which it bills as Oahu's first affordable independent living community for seniors. The facility includes 149 one- and two-bedroom rental apartments and a senior community center that serves as a gathering place for health, recreation, social and cultural activities.

"Hawaii has 1.3 million people — a relatively large population for a small state — and our people have one of the longest life span rates in the United States. By 2020, 25 percent of Hawaii's population will be over 60 years old," says Sr. Ching. "This is a much-needed facility."

Under Sr. Ching's leadership, St. Francis Home Care Services-Kauai brought home-based telehealth monitoring to that island; the service was subsequently expanded to Oahu patients. The technology helps enable homebound, elderly patients with chronic conditions such as congestive heart failure to stay in their homes rather than moving to a skilled nursing facility. The home-based monitoring system flags symptoms early, promoting timely medical intervention, which reduces the need for emergency room visits and hospital stays.

Sr. Ching also oversaw major renovations at the system's two hospice centers in the greater Honolulu area, one with 24 beds, the other with 12. "We also serve 200 home hospice patients and are working on other service lines to complement care, including bathing and personal care services, adult day care to give caregivers respite, and bereavement services to ensure that survivors maintain a good quality of life," says Sr. Ching.

St. Francis Healthcare's Correa says Sr. Ching personifies the "aloha" in Hawaii.

"'Aloha' can be translated as 'hello,' 'goodbye' 'I love you.' It is a way to open your house to people, to welcome them without prejudice — to treat everybody as if they are family," he explains. "That mind-set may be Sr. Ching's greatest gift — and the greatest impact she has had on St. Francis Healthcare System."


Copyright © 2012 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States
For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3477.

Copyright © 2012 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States

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