Story sharing motivates and inspires ministry members

November 1, 2016


When Phyllis Hope was studying at the University of Florida College of Medicine, she knew she wanted to be a pediatrician, but she worried about how she'd respond to caring for children with potentially fatal illnesses. When she saw bald children undergoing chemotherapy, she felt like they were wearing a badge that displayed "sorrow, and risk and potential loss," she said.

Dr. Phyllis Hope, center, visits with Monique Murphy and her newborn daughter Murrian Murphy-Vaughan at Bon Secours DePaul Medical Center in Norfolk, Va., in September. Hope shared a story at a recent physician leadership conference about how a young child's courage strengthened her own resolve to provide care.
Photo by Richard Muldez

Then she met Rachel, age 4. Hope, then a third-year medical student, had long blonde hair she often wore in a ponytail at the time. The child admired the medical student's "pretty hair," saying, "I don't have hair now, but I did." Rachel asked her mother to show Hope a picture her mother carried of the child as a toddler with a head of ringlets. Rachel explained she didn't have hair because of her cancer. "When I'm done having cancer, I'll have hair again," the child said, matter of fact.

Hope recalled, years later: "In that moment, I felt my sorrow and fear melt away. I can't be afraid, because she's not afraid." Rachel did not survive her cancer. Hope said she was supposed to be the healer in the relationship, but she believes Rachel cured her. "Her healing of me was real … and permanent," she said.

Now a neonatal hospitalist at Bon Secours DePaul Medical Center in Norfolk, Va., Hope recently shared her story at a Bon Secours physician leadership forum in Greenville, N.C.

Fr. Joseph Driscoll, the vice president of spirituality for Bon Secours Health System and the founding director of the system's Center for Ministry Leadership, said narrative — the sharing of stories — is fundamental to Catholic health care. He said while mission is important in Catholic health care, lots of other organizations have missions. He thinks sharing stories allows staff members to better understand charism, which he defines as the gift of spirit given to a founder or founders of a health care system to meet a specific need in a time of history that then attracted others to the ministry.

Fr. Driscoll

As one example, Fr. Driscoll said the Sisters of Bon Secours, who founded Bon Secours Health System, believed that Jesus Christ is present in the care of a patient, and also that each patient reflects back the face of Jesus Christ to the care provider. One of the "gathering questions" he asks when meeting with a group for leadership training is about that dual presence of Christ in the caregiving relationship, and when they've experienced it. Hope was responding to that question when she shared the story of her patient Rachel, an account that resonated with other care providers in the room.

Energizing employees, reinforcing mission
PeaceHealth revamped its approach to encourage more engagement among employees related to the system's mission and values, and that new approach also incorporates new ways of story sharing.

Rosanne Ponzetti, PeaceHealth's system vice president of mission services, said that every other year PeaceHealth conducts a full, on-site "mission and values review process": a review team visits PeaceHealth care facilities and spends time with caregivers and employees to assess whether they experience the mission themselves, are invested in it, and are able to give witness to the Vancouver, Wash.-based system's charge to "carry on the healing mission of Jesus Christ by promoting personal and community health, relieving pain and suffering, and treating each person in a loving and caring way."

The review process is multifaceted. In advance of site visits, caregivers at a site are asked to take an online survey anonymously. The results give a review team, made up of Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace or their delegates, insight into caregiver engagement related to the system's mission and values. Employees at each site are asked ahead of time to think of stories about a time they or a colleague demonstrated PeaceHealth's core values of respect, collaboration, stewardship and/or social justice. Ponzetti said these stories are shared by care providers with their colleagues and the review team in a variety of ways during the site visit. An employee may informally tell his or her story to the site visit team. Staff at some facilities put together slideshows or videos and share stories at staff showcases.

During a staff showcase, Amanda expresses gratitude for the kindness and respect she received from caregivers at PeaceHealth St. Joseph Medical Center in Bellingham, Wash.

Some care providers invite patients back to their facility, to talk about the impact of compassionate care. Amanda, a former patient who did not disclose her last name during her presentation, gave a moving account during a showcase at PeaceHealth St. Joseph Medical Center in Bellingham, Wash., last year. She was hospitalized for a severe infection related to her drug abuse, shortly after she stopped using. Amanda said her care providers didn't judge her, or treat her differently from other patients because of her addiction. "It was here I realized the importance of taking care of myself," she told employees. "I felt like I was truly worthy of care."

Amanda has maintained her sobriety, and her children, who had not lived with her during the height of her addiction, were allowed to return to living in her home.

Ponzetti said the storytelling at PeaceHealth "gives word to what we value." She said caregivers report feeling renewed and recharged when such stories are shared. "People need a chance to connect to bigger stories, to the 'why' of what we do."

At each regular board meeting, the PeaceHealth System Board of Directors hears a story about employees and their care for patients, Ponzetti said. Sometimes, this results in an effective program or offering at one site being added at other locations. PeaceHealth also collects stories that reflect its mission and values in an annual publication by PeaceHealth Mission Services called Moments of Grace. It is shared with employees and community members.

Huddling up
MissionPoint Health Partners, a Nashville, Tenn.-based subsidiary of Ascension, is a population health management and accountable care organization. For Zac Willette, MissionPoint's vice president for mission integration, story sharing is essential to keeping employees in five states connected to their work and to the mission of St. Louis-based Ascension, including its commitment to "serving all persons with special attention to those who are poor and vulnerable."


"I'm convinced that humans survive on stories," Willette said. "For millennia, the way human beings have stored wisdom — before we had hard drives, before we had books — was through stories."

During orientation for new employees, Willette asks employees to discuss what "stirs them" after they review Ascension's mission statement and MissionPoint's guiding principles. He said employees are moved by different aspects of the mission and principles.

"We're not all interchangeable automatons," he noted. "We're people who bring our own personal narratives, our own hopes and dreams and fears that animate our work." During the orientation, he encourages "pair and share" exchanges, in which an employee speaks with one other employee, and then people can share stories with the whole group, if they'd like. He said it allows everyone a chance to speak, and also is respectful and inclusive of people who may be uncomfortable addressing a large group.

MissionPoint encourages employees to share stories about living the mission in their work on an ongoing basis during 15-minute group huddles, which occur twice weekly at local offices. Willette said Jesus consistently went to the margins of society to minister to people who were poor and vulnerable. "This isn't your everyday job. This isn't just, 'Here are my six duties; I will discharge them reliably.' No, they are working for a compassionate and just society." Story sharing reinforces that and fosters discussion about what it looks like to live the mission through work and in life, he said.

Amanda addresses care providers at PeaceHealth St. Joseph Medical Center in Bellingham, Wash.:


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.