Caring legacy

St. Joseph’s Hospital Health Center follows the tradition of its foundress

The work of Bl. Mother Marianne Cope is largely associated with Hawaii. But her will to serve those on the margins was born here in the Syracuse Diocese.

Her legacy lives on in the diocese where it is claimed not only by her Franciscan sisters but also by such entities she helped found, such as St. Joseph’s Hospital on the north side of Syracuse.

“Her proposal for canonization has certainly given us a shot in the arm here,” said Kathryn Ruscitto, the senior vice president for strategic planning and organizational development at St. Joseph’s Hospital Health Center.

“I think we all see her as someone to pray to,” Ruscitto said. The employees and sisters at the hospital are sure to hand out prayer cards.

Mother Marianne’s influence isn’t just relegated to spiritual intangibles. Her example informs many medical considerations. According to Ruscitto, when Mother Marianne was on the board at St. Joseph’s, she insisted on hygiene standards that were unheard of in the middle of the 19th century.

According to Sister Mary Laurence Hanley, OSF, a historian who has carefully studied the life of Mother Marianne, “[Mother Marianne] was the key to its success by her sensible way of responding to difficulties and innovative ways for the time.”

Mother Marianne was also instrumental in bringing the College of Medicine to Syracuse from Geneva. While the situation enabled medical students to receive hands on training, Mother Marianne insisted that it not be at the expense of the patient’s dignity. She told the medical school that should any patient decline treatment by a student, their wishes must be honored.

“She advocated for patients’ rights — she gave patients a choice,” Sister Mary Laurence said. “She made it hospital policy that ‘the wishes of the patients with regard to their being brought before the medical students be respected in every case.”

Founded in 1869, the hospital is proud of its connection to the north side and to its roots in the Franciscan order in particular.

Ruscitto noted that the sisters instill their spirit of compassion into the hospital’s endeavors.

The hospital’s mission statement heavily emphasizes the Franciscan approach.

“We, the St. Joseph’s Hospital Health Center family, inspired by the spirit of St. Francis, welcome with compassion and reverence all people,” it reads. “We dedicate ourselves to excellence as we care for the physical, emotional, social and spiritual needs of those we serve and with whom we work. We strive to be people of vision, responding with enthusiasm and integrity to the needs of all in an ever-changing health care environment. With an ongoing commitment to careful stewardship, we accept our sacred mission.”

In 1869, the sisters took over a dance hall on top of Prospect Hill in Syracuse and reformed it into a small, 15-bed hospital. In the 21st century, the health center has grown to include a college of nursing, emergency psychiatric services and two outpatient surgery centers.

Franciscan Sister Rose Ann Renna noted that mission services have always been at the heart of St. Joseph’s.

“The sisters who started this place started it with mission services in mind…it was for the people who could not pay,” Sister Rose Ann said.

Compassion for all people is scripted into the hospital’s earliest recorded bylaws, the Franciscan sister emphasized.

“We can’t discriminate,” Sister Rose Ann said. “It’s core to who we are.”

The sisters cared for many people considered pariahs in the mid 19th century including alcoholics, the homeless and unwed mothers. Mother Marianne determined and insisted on this policy.

“This was not the usual way in hospitals of that time — most physicians felt that one should be morally sound to deserve hospital care so she was criticized by those not in agreement,” Sister Mary Laurence said.

As eras shifted along with social convention, the hospital has changed as well.

“As times change we mold our mission,” Sister Rose Ann said.

Those whom society has shunned remain among the most important patients for the hospital today.

Because of its limited resources, St. Joseph’s narrowed its focus to a handful of critical services including access and delivery of health care, health and wellness, maternal and child health, mental health, chronic disease (including cardiovascular and renal), dental healthcare and wound care.

Sister Rose Ann numbers St. Joseph’s mental health services, its Maternal Child Health Center on Salina Street and its West Side Center on Seymour Street among the hospital’s most important sites.

“It’s really about trying to reach the underserved,” she said.

The administration is very proud of its mental health services. Sister Rose compared the mentally ill of contemporary society to the lepers of the 19th century. Because of the lack of facilities serving the mentally ill, St. Joseph’s considers the situation a crisis in Central New York.

St. Joseph’s is the largest provider of mental health services in Onondaga County. Sister Rose Ann noted that one of the important new features of the hospital’s mental health service has been its outreach into the schools. The hospital currently offers LINK (Leading, Integrating, Networking for Kids) to people in the East Syracuse-Minoa School District. As of December, 2006, 60 children and their families were utilizing the program. St. Joseph’s hopes to establish another LINK location in the Cicero-North Syracuse school district this year.

Sister Rose Ann noted that the hospital once treated the mentally ill in a manner similar to those with physical ills. Now the hospital has a more intimate approach.

Providing for those with limited resources is also extended to dental services. St. Joseph’s is among the very few dental providers in Central New York that accepts Medicaid. Currently, the hospital is spending $550,000 to expand its dental office to accommodate more people.

Just like the 19th century, maternal and child health services are a strong priority at St. Joseph’s.

The Westside Family Health Center’s staff is bilingual. The care offered there includes obstetrics, gynecological care, pediatric visits, immunizations, physicals, blood draws, nutrition and financial counseling and referrals to specialists. Doctors are on hand all week including Sundays, 24 hours a day.

Among the special features of the Westside Family Health Center is an informal pregnancy club. According to the hospital, roughly 250 women participate in the club along with their prenatal visits. The club provides education regarding pregnancy and the birth process. The hospital’s 2007 Community Service Plan Implementation Report quoted Medical Director Luis Castro as asserting that because of the club’s influence, breastfeeding rates have increased by 30 percent and women who participated in the program also delivered babies with healthier birth weights.

Another community resource offered to the underserved by the hospital is the Wellness Place at the main campus. The Wellness Place in Liverpool provides free general health screening, such as blood pressure readings, cardiac and diabetes risk assessment and counseling as well as patient education activities and public health screenings.

Like many of its centers, St. Joseph’s Wellness Place is designed to educate as well as treat. In 2006, the Wellness Place numbered several highlights including 520 hypertension screenings, 100 lipid/cholesterol screenings, 140 diabetes screenings, 120 pulmonary function tests, 4,500 blood pressure and/or cardiac risk factor screenings and more than 400 flu vaccinations. The Wellness Place also offered a series of classes including “Better Breathing Classes,” four community education programs on joint replacement, back care, kidney dialysis and schlerodoma as well as lectures on stroke awareness and general health and wellness, a Women’s Wellness Fair at Great Northern Mall and four school programs about good hand hygiene at local schools.

The Maternal Child Health Center is located near the main campus. Its location on the north side means it is an important resource for the Vietnamese community. It opened in 1990 as part of St. Joseph’s effort to counter infant mortality rates. Located on Prospect Avenue in Syracuse, the center provides a plethora of care services including sonography, social services, nutritional counseling and phlebotomy.

Under the guidance of the Sisters of St. Francis, the hospital retains its identity as a place in which all people are welcome.

Under its guidelines for charity care, St. Joseph’s notes that it accepts all patients without regard for race, color, religion, sex, national origin, sexual orientation or source of payment. Moreover, the hospital has taken every measure it can to make sure that language is not a barrier for potential patients. Financial assistance brochures are available in English, Spanish and Vietnamese.

“It’s really about trying to reach the underserved,” Sister Rose Ann said. “We’re doing more than our share. Although I never feel that that’s doing enough.”

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