Thinking Globally - PeaceHealth Employees Benefit from El Salvador Health Missions

March-April 2008


Sr. Gilmore is director, El Salvador Health Mission, San Salvador, El Salvador, and Mr. Yordy is president and chief mission officer, PeaceHealth, Bellevue, Wash.

The Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace celebrated a Year of Jubilee in 1984 with more than 300 members gathering for a general chapter meeting in Leicester, England. At that meeting, the Vatican's Sacred Congregation for Religious asked congregations to examine their current mission and ministry.

In doing so, the sisters reclaimed and received approval to return to their original title, Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace. Following the approval of the first constitutions, the Vatican named the congregation, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Newark.

This examination set the course for the next six years. The Chapter Acts included the following call of ministry that would take the sisters to El Salvador:

"In keeping with our documents, which call us to solidarity with poor, powerless and oppressed peoples, as a Congregation we specifically commit ourselves during the next six years to give special attention to critical needs in Central America and Northern Ireland. This shall involve: direct solidarity with the peoples of these areas; various actions promoting systemic change; and continued education for our membership." (Acts of the 17th General Chapter, August 1984)

This simple act of faith had a profound effect on the congregation and now on PeaceHealth, the Northwest health care ministry of Our Lady Province. Within a year, two sisters responded to a call by the Archbishop of San Salvador to work in a newly established "refugee camp" on the outskirts of that city. This camp was to replace church basements and other locations the church had opened to meet the emergency needs of thousands of displaced Salvadorans. Many were seeking protection from the "civil" war.

Jesuit Refugee Services (JRS) for Central America was also initiating its work in El Salvador as thousands of exiled Salvadorans began returning home. Health, education, housing and other services were not available in the war zones, the primary locations of these communities of "re-population." A sister from Our Lady Province initiated a health service in the JRS headquarters, and this unique ministry coordinated medical services for the refugee populations in many parts of the country.

When the Peace Accords were signed in 1992, JRS re-focused its mission on development, and the sisters missioned in El Salvador returned to ministry in the Pacific Northwest and Great Britain. Four sisters, representing the three provinces of the congregation, served in El Salvador. Their experience had a profound impact on the life of the congregation.

PeaceHealth Ministry
PeaceHealth (www.peacehealth.org) is an integrated health care system in the Pacific Northwest. Headquartered in Bellevue, Wash., it operates six hospitals, medical groups and other services in Washington, Oregon and Alaska. PeaceHealth's mission statement and values reflect the character and mission of the sponsors, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace. From their founding in 1884, the sisters have followed the progressive ideals and practical spirituality of foundress Margaret Anna Cusack. Four sisters traveled across the country to Fairhaven (Bellingham), Wash., in 1890, bringing with them a message and commitment that exist in PeaceHealth today. Their work resulted in the opening of the first PeaceHealth hospital in 1892.

The Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace firmly believe lay colleagues play an equal role in the important mission of carrying out the healing ministry of Jesus. The leaders of each PeaceHealth regional ministry also serve as chief mission officers, a title formally conferred in a special ceremony. This role carries with it the responsibility to uphold in word and deed the mission and values that are rooted in the tradition of the congregation. Additionally, each caregiver makes a commitment to embrace the spirit, mission, values and vision of PeaceHealth.

El Salvador Health Mission
In 1999, seven members of the PeaceHealth Leadership Team and three sisters went on a 10-day investigation visit to El Salvador. The vice president of mission integration had proposed that Our Lady Province and PeaceHealth jointly sponsor an El Salvador mission program. Conceptually, it would provide an opportunity for PeaceHealth employees to experience and reflect on the reality of health care in a developing country. Locating this opportunity in El Salvador honored the history and work of the congregation. The knowledge of the sisters who had been missioned there would be invaluable in cultivating relationships and service opportunities. The group unanimously agreed the program would support "mission integration." A second and more definitive visit followed, and a business plan was approved. The El Salvador mission (www.pazsalud.org) opened its doors in late 2000, and the first PeaceHealth employee volunteers arrived in March 2001, immediately after two devastating earthquakes.

The Mission "Model"
Now in its seventh year, two full-time persons staff the program. The director, a sister with previous experience in El Salvador, resides in the San Salvador base house. The second team member is a long-term PeaceHealth employee based at Sacred Heart Medical Center in Eugene, Ore. Via e-mail, they plan the missions, select and prepare volunteers and the necessary supplies, and obtain the necessary permissions of the Salvadoran Ministry of Health to host missions and related activities.

The service model has been modified based on the country's needs and employee interests. During the first three years, the San Salvador base house hosted 28 volunteers, substantially more than expected. In 2002, the group responded to requests to provide short-term rural medical missions. As requests from Salvadoran municipalities, communities and non-governmental agencies increased, so did the size of the mission teams.

Today, two 26-member mission teams, comprised primarily of PeaceHealth caregivers, travel to El Salvador each year. These teams consist of general medicine, pediatric and gynecologic physicians, optometrists and support services personnel. Spanish-speaking, non-medical employees help translate for non-fluent physicians and other medical volunteers. A cataract surgical team, in collaboration with SEE International, follows the medical mission. The enthusiasm of returning volunteers has spread throughout PeaceHealth, resulting in a waiting list of volunteer applicants.

The depth of the experience is best summarized up by Craig Rixon, a mission volunteer in 2007. He said, "God speaks to us through His word and this was God's way of confirming in my heart the calling that we all have to not be passive, but to boldly defend the rights of the poor and disenfranchised. Every member of the brigade was deeply moved by the experiences of those who were martyred for the cause in El Salvador. It is still sometimes almost too much for me to talk about, as the emotions are overwhelming. For those who have the privilege of this experience, I believe it helps us to connect with the charism of the sisters and the foundation of PeaceHealth."

Growing Interest
Through the efforts of an optometrist who has participated in all of the missions since the program's founding, the mission hosted a delegation of Lions Club members from Bellingham, Wash., in 2007. That club has established a sister relationship with a San Salvador Lions Club, and provides them with "low vision" equipment and supplies. Such aid supports the work of the San Salvador Lions Club in its affiliations with the University of El Salvador School of Ophthamology and organizations working with low-vision patients. A second delegation of Lions members from the Pacific Northwest will travel to El Salvador in April.

The first mission of 2008 included a medical student from the Oregon Health and Sciences University, Portland, Ore. Through an affiliation with Sacred Heart Medical Center in Eugene, Ore., the university now offers fourth year medical students the chance to participate in the mission. Those who go receive elective credit for work in international medicine. These students practice under the supervision of a physician appointed by the director of the Center for Medical Education at Sacred Heart Medical Center.

A survey of mission participants was conducted recently. Their positive responses encouraged us to continue the ministry in El Salvador as conceived by the founding leadership group:

Through the service of PeaceHealth and the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace volunteers, the mission brings basic health care to people who have limited access to care and presents opportunities to:

  • enrich the soul of our organization by realizing our sense of the PeaceHealth mission.
  • offer a personal growth and development opportunity to participants that will
  • enhance their work within the regions.
  • to assist us in defining and implementing opportunities to further our mission with the underserved in PeaceHealth service areas.

Survey participants responded overwhelmingly that they "agreed" or "agreed strongly" the experience was meaningful to them personally and in their work environment:

  • 100 percent agreed or agreed strongly that the experience "energized me and renewed my spirit"
  • 97 percent agreed or agreed strongly that it "made me a better caregiver when I returned to my regular work in PeaceHealth"
  • 100 percent agreed or agreed strongly that "it had a positive impact on the way I interact with patients and their family in my work back here in PeaceHealth"
  • 97 percent felt they came home with "a deeper understanding and appreciation of the PeaceHealth mission and core values"
  • The supervisors of the participants also responded:
  • 100 percent of the supervisors said that "… returning from El Salvador, volunteers bring an enthusiasm from their experience that inspires others in the department about the importance of caring and compassion in their work"
  • 92 percent felt that "having staff go to El Salvador as a volunteer is of value to their department"
  • 100 percent feel that "… having people in the department who have had the experience helps the department as a whole to understand what caring and compassion for others means"
  • 92 percent agreed or agreed strongly that the long-term value to the department of having staff come back with the experience outweighs the short-term cost (e.g. replacement of personnel) to the department.

One supervisor commented, "A benefit that you didn't address is that of recruitment. As we seek applicants who are good 'fits' for our organization, we often find that the discussion of the El Salvador Mission helps candidates see that PeaceHealth 'walks its talk.'"

These results are gratifying and personal testimonies are even more so: A physician says, "The benefit I gained is in realizing that in primary care a lot can be done with relatively few resources; just knowledge, simple equipment and supplies…. I want someday to return to that type of culture of simplicity in medicine."

Another relates, "The El Salvador experience … has had a profound impact on my practice here. It reminds me of the original goals I had in entering medicine and now my practice more closely reflects those goals."

A volunteer was deeply moved as she saw a young woman patient "who was not interested in looking at the eye chart (to test her new glasses), but instead reached into her purse and took out a needle and thread and proceeded to thread the needle … this would help her to make a living."

The El Salvador Mission began with a small group of PeaceHealth leaders who took a leap of faith, trusting that such a program would provide one more opportunity for employees to experience the PeaceHealth mission and values. Involvement and support of top leadership was key to the decision to establish the mission. This support gives encouragement to continue this program. It not only enriches the lives of those who are served and those who serve, but it also makes each caregiver a more dedicated servant in the healing ministry of Jesus here at home.


Copyright © 2008 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States.
For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3477.

Thinking Globally - PeaceHealth Employees Benefit from El Salvador Health Missions

Copyright © 2008 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States

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