Catholic health ministry serves with mercy and compassion

July 1, 2016

Photo credit: Jerry Naunheim Jr. / © CHA
Robert J. Henkel

2016-2017 Chairperson
CHA Board of Trustees
President and chief executive, Ascension Health, and executive vice president,
Ascension, St. Louis

At two small, rural health clinics, a story is told that I believe is a wonderful metaphor for Catholic health care in the United States.

In southeastern Arkansas, with the opening of St. Elizabeth Health Center in Gould in 1990 and DePaul Health Center in Dumas in 1992, Ascension's Daughters of Charity Services of Arkansas began serving this impoverished region.

Gould and Dumas are located about 8 miles apart, and both happen to be on the same railroad line, with freight trains running on a regular schedule through both towns.

It is said that, one day, an engineer piloting a southbound freight train stopped his locomotive just outside the doors of St. Elizabeth Health Center in Gould — the train tracks literally were adjacent to the clinic. Because trains never stopped in Gould, clinic staff knew that this was something unusual.

The engineer entered the clinic and told the staff that he had a heart condition, and that he had no more of his prescription medication. While not acute, his condition was serious, and he knew that he needed assistance to continue on his route.

The small health clinic was not equipped to meet the needs of cardiac patients, and the town of Gould had no drugstore. The clinic staff offered calming words to the engineer. They asked him to continue in his train to Dumas. By the time he got there, they told him, they would figure something out.

So the engineer returned to his locomotive and proceeded to Dumas. As he made the short trip, clinical staff in Gould phoned the pharmacy located in Dumas and alerted the pharmacist about the situation. The pharmacist quickly filled a prescription for the engineer's cardiac medication. As the train approached Dumas, the pharmacist stood trackside and gave the medication to the engineer. After a brief stop, the train and its grateful engineer continued on their journey south.

The story of the train engineer who stopped in Gould and Dumas is about just one person who was served in a compassionate and caring way. But to me, the story is an apt metaphor for the Catholic health ministry more broadly, and about the special nature of those who are called to serve in this unique ministry. The story exemplifies that:

Catholic health care is person-centered. To continue the metaphor, the patient drives the train. Our efforts focus on engaging with patients and their families to ensure that they are receiving thoughtful, holistic care that meets the needs of the whole person — body, mind and spirit.

Catholic health care is there for people who suffer with complex needs, and meets people where they are. Especially in this Year of Mercy called for by Pope Francis, the Catholic health ministry brings the peace and love of Christ to all, with special attention to persons living in poverty and those most vulnerable. While our ministry is called to celebrate diversity among those we serve, we should be equally intolerant of the diversity that we continue to see in health outcomes for populations, and in the inequity of care that continues to be prevalent across our nation. We must do better.

Catholic health care is about more than hospitals. While our legacy of care in the hospital setting is significant, and while hospitals continue to play an important role in meeting the needs of individuals and communities, we recognize that care is provided in all sorts of settings, clinical and nonclinical. In a transformed health care environment, we are called to stretch our thinking about the best ways to meet local needs now and into the future.

Catholic health care believes in community partnerships. Especially in today's challenging health care marketplace, values-aligned partners are important. Whether it's having a solid relationship with the local pharmacist in Dumas or developing with other local providers a statewide clinically integrated system of care to lower costs and improve health outcomes — we actively make connections and engage with our communities.

Catholic health care is nimble, creative and finds solutions. Those who serve in the Catholic health care ministry have a history of "making it happen." From religious women and men who arrived in new communities with no money and perhaps limited knowledge of the local language to the clinical staff in Gould who said that they would "figure something out" to address the train engineer's dilemma, our orientation has always been focused on meeting immediate needs and making decisions that help sustain and grow the Catholic health ministry for years to come.

As Pope Francis noted, "The credibility of a health care system is not measured solely by efficiency, but above all by the attention and love given to the person, whose life is always sacred and inviolable." Even during times of great change, may all of us in this national health care ministry take to heart our special calling to meet the needs of those we are privileged to serve with a profound and continuing spirit of mercy and compassion.


Copyright © 2016 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States
For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3477.

Copyright © 2016 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States

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