Sr. Maura Brannick brings health care to working poor, unemployed

July 1, 2013

Lifetime Achievement Award


Sr. Maura Brannick, CSC, would rather talk about a homeless man named Willy than about meeting then-President George H.W. Bush aboard Air Force One.

As founder of what is now called the Sister Maura Brannick, CSC, Health Center of Saint Joseph Regional Medical Center in South Bend, Ind., Sr. Brannick has met many Willys, and the encounters have all stayed with her.

Willy was one of the medically marginalized and vulnerable people that she sought out on the streets of South Bend, offering blood-pressure and blood-sugar checks even before she opened the first health clinic in 1986 in a 400-square-foot, converted two-bay garage in western South Bend.

"Willy always came on a bicycle, no matter the weather," she recalled. "Then one day he didn't come, and finally a Holy Cross brother went to where we thought maybe he was."

He found Willy "under raggedy covers" and on his deathbed. "We were able to get him to the hospital and encouraged him to go into hospice," Sr. Brannick said. "I'm pleased to say he died between clean sheets."

For her work providing much-needed health care to thousands of low-income men, women and children who have no health insurance, Sr. Brannick is a 2013 recipient of CHA's Lifetime Achievement Award. Sr. Ruth Marie Nickerson, CSC, coordinator for the area of North America for the Congregation of the Sisters of the Holy Cross, accepted the award on Sr. Brannick's behalf at the June 3 Catholic Health Assembly awards dinner in Anaheim, Calif.

Humble leader
Bush gave Sr. Brannick a 1,000 Points of Light Award in 1991, presenting the honor to her aboard Air Force One. Her most vivid memories of that day are of the operating table on the presidential plane and "a small Oval Office that was larger than the living room in the house where I was living."

Sr. Brannick is quick to deflect any praise for her work to the hundreds of volunteers and donors who keep the clinic going. It now operates as a 10,000-square-foot comprehensive primary care clinic focusing on caring for the unemployed and working poor.

"I had the idea, but everyone else has done the work," she said. "I get the awards, but everyone else deserves them."

Forty-five to 50 physicians volunteer every month at the clinic, she said. "And we have a whole group of physicians and surgeons and neurologists that we can refer patients to if necessary."

Dozens of volunteers also come from nearby colleges and universities — the University of Notre Dame, St. Mary's College, Indiana University South Bend, Bethel College and Moreau Seminary.

Just do it
In 1993, the St. Joseph Valley Alumni Club of Notre Dame and Saint Joseph Regional Medical Center began funding a full-time, yearlong internship at the clinic for a recent Notre Dame graduate who already has been accepted to medical school. The internship is named for Dr. Thomas Anthony
Dooley III, a Notre Dame graduate known for his humanitarian work in Southeast Asia until his death in 1961.

Derek Escalante, 23, has been the Tom Dooley intern for nearly a year and has found the experience invaluable. A native of New York, he is headed to Temple University School of Medicine in Philadelphia this fall.

"This has opened my eyes to the fact that there are areas of any community where the population is very vulnerable," he said. "It has been really great to be able to work with an organization that stands up for those folks."

Escalante also feels he has benefited from learning how a health clinic is run and from meeting physicians across a wide variety of specialties. "It's been an awesome way to kick off my medical school education," he said.

Sr. Brannick said she tells each intern as he or she leaves, "Now remember, when you make it on your own, I did this and you certainly could too. You don't have to start big."

Comprehensive services
In order to receive services at the clinic, patients must earn less than 150 percent of the federal poverty level but be ineligible for Medicaid or Medicare and otherwise unable to obtain health insurance. As a way of participating in their own care, patients pay a $5 co-payment for each medical visit and $10 for a dental visit, but no one is turned down because of an inability to pay.

Saint Joseph Regional Medical Center pays the salaries of the clinic's few full-time employees, as well as its rent and utility costs. The clinic recently hired a full-time pharmacist who is well versed in the various aid programs offered by pharmaceutical companies and who helps the clinic's patients get enrolled in them.

The South Bend Medical Foundation subsidizes the lab work performed for clinic patients.

In addition to medical and dental services, the clinic offers a food pantry and some mental health counseling. "We try to be as full-service as possible," Sr. Brannick said.

Eggs and apples
Now 90, Sr. Brannick can't remember a time when she didn't want to be a nurse. "It seemed like a wonderful, wonderful life," she said. "They were such brave people, such wonderful people."

Growing up on a farm in Minooka, Ill., during the Great Depression, she said her family was always willing to share whatever they had.

"Nobody ever came to our house that didn't go away with eggs or apples," she said. "And we always shared whatever we had in the garden with other people. That's how everybody got by in the Depression, by helping each other."

She remembers witnessing a man coming to her grandfather's house to return $1,000 that the grandfather had lent him. "That was like a million dollars in those days when things were really tough," she said. "But there was no paper, no loan agreement. It was just a gentlemen's agreement."

Sr. Brannick, who still serves as a volunteer at the clinic named for her, continues that spirit today in another difficult economic period. She said the clinic receives 100 to 150 patients more each month than it did a year ago.

Indiana's governor opposes Medicaid expansion under the current terms of the Affordable Care Act; and, even if the state were to expand Medicaid enrollment under federal health reform, Sr. Brannick is unsure of the impact on the clinic. But she is sure of this:

"There will always be people who don't fit into any programs," she said, "so we'll be there."


Copyright © 2013 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States
For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3477.

Copyright © 2013 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States

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