By PRISCILLA GREEAR, Staff Writer | Published September 1, 2005
In 1880, the year Thomas Edison’s electric street lamps were first installed commercially, sisters from Savannah lit an enduring light of healing mercy for the sick in Atlanta.
Sister of Mercy Cecilia Carroll and three other sisters were called by Bishop William Gross from their convent in Savannah with a mission to minister to the sick of Atlanta, then a city of only 37,409 still recovering from the Civil War. With only 50 cents among them, they rallied local support and founded the city’s first medical facility—then called Atlanta Hospital—with 10 beds in a two-story house on the corner of Courtland and Baker streets, where the Marriott Marquis hotel stands today. The pioneering sisters were members of a religious order established in Dublin, Ireland, in 1827 by Catherine McAuley, who used her large inheritance to found homes to help the desperately poor on the streets.
“Atlanta has a hospital at last,” declared The Atlanta Constitution in May 1880 as the Mercy sisters began treating the sick and poor, laying the cornerstone of health care for what would become the Southeast’s largest city. “It is a permanent institution that will grow in importance and usefulness as the city’s needs increase. The new institution is called the Atlanta Hospital and is controlled by the Sisters whose beautiful ministrations to the afflicted are known to all.”
Carefully handwritten records from 1880 forward indicate that with a core group of physicians the sisters in the early years treated conditions ranging from cancer and cataracts to delirium, apoplexy, consumption and paralysis. In May 1905 a patient who entered the infirmary was charged $18 per week for a room. The nurses balanced water pitchers, medicines, sheets and towels as they saw more than 50 patients a month and climbed rope ladders to reach patients in the attic. They soon began planning to expand and moved to a larger building on Courtland Street.
“They were really visionary,” said Bonnie Phipps, CEO in 2005 of Saint Joseph’s Health System.
Hospital Earns State, National Recognition For Excellence
From its 50-cent establishment to an over $50 million 2004 net income, about half from investments, Saint Joseph’s Hospital this year celebrates its 125th anniversary with the theme of “respecting the past, inventing the future.”
The only faith-based hospital in Atlanta, named after the protector of the sick, it today is one of the leading acute care, specialty referral hospitals in the Southeast. In 2005 it was recognized for the second time by J.D. Power and Associates as a Distinguished Hospital for Service Excellence, providing an outstanding patient experience, the only hospital in Atlanta to receive this designation.
Relocated in 1978 from downtown Atlanta to Peachtree Dunwoody Road, it is best known nationally for heart and vascular care, while also a leader in neurological, gastrointestinal, respiratory, orthopedic and cancer treatment. The Catholic Church is the largest private health care provider in the country. The hospital, part of Catholic Health East, also offers a variety of educational programs, health fairs, screening programs and support groups for the community.
Providing care to the general public, the Catholic identity of the Mercy mission is quietly reflected in a red cross above the hospital sign, the plaques, statues and pictures honoring sisters, volunteers and benefactors, and a chapel located just off the main lobby. Also in the main lobby is a stained glass window from the original hospital depicting Jesus healing the sick, a garden with small fountains, and a statue of St. Joseph. Six Sisters of Mercy are on the staff.
The entire facility is marked by a “human touch” with original art and plants inside and neatly landscaped shrubs outside. One lobby wall has a golden mosaic of the Madonna and child and another an angel painted by Atlanta artist Athos Menaboni. Another declares the mission “… providing excellent clinical care with compassion, dignity and respect for all,” and has a quote from McAuley: “While we place all our confidence in God we must act as if all depends on our efforts.”
Down a nearby hallway with large glass windows are Stations of the Cross, photos of the original hospital building, and a display of the pump oxygenator designed by Dr. William Hopkins to perform the first open heart surgery in the Southeast in 1957. Downstairs is a colorful mural depicting the history, including the original house with a stagecoach out front and today’s Mercy Mobile van “taking healthcare to the streets.”
The hospital has some 365 volunteers, and one late July day a female volunteer with a clipboard updated people in the main lobby on their family member’s surgery. Nearby a TV screen stated the hospital’s credentials. Health Grades, Inc., rated Saint Joseph’s in the top 5 percent of hospitals in the country for overall clinical services, naming it a Distinguished Hospital for Clinical Excellence for a second year. It also ranked the hospital with five stars and the “Best in Georgia” for cardiac care for the third year and with five stars and “Best in Georgia” for stroke and gastrointestinal services. Vascular and orthopedic services are rated “among the best in Georgia.” As CEO Phipps summarized in a letter, “Dedication to its Mercy philosophy has been essential in growing Saint Joseph’s from its humble origins on Courtland and Baker streets to a nationally recognized hospital renowned for medical innovation, clinical expertise and patient satisfaction.”
Phipps has worked for 31 years in nonprofit health care and came to the hospital three years ago.
“This is really different. We always live our values every day—respect for the individual,” she said in an interview in her office just off the lobby. “We start with day one when you go through orientation and (we) explain to our employees what it means to work here.”
System Donates Millions Yearly To Serve Poor, Elderly
The entire Saint Joseph’s Health System of Atlanta, which includes Mercy Care Services, donates about $37 million a year for care of the poor and elderly, with financial aid provided to those who meet certain criteria under the hospital’s charity care policies. Phipps said as one of two cardiac transplant hospitals in Georgia, Saint Joseph’s will even perform transplant surgery on patients who are unable to pay and also pay as needed for the patient’s medications afterward, an outreach on which they spend about $500,000 a year.
“It really is a special place. And, of course, the sisters keep us in place; that’s why they’re all here,” Phipps said. “But this is a very ecumenical place … We don’t pay special attention to people who are Catholic or try to convert people. It’s just the religious overtones in treating everyone as a special individual.”
Wearing a tailored suit, Sister Jane Gerety, RSM, senior vice president, sponsorship, is one of the six savvy Mercy sisters plus three other Religious now at the hospital. She is responsible for ensuring the Mercy mission lives on today with the patients, employees and care for the poor at the hospital. She admires the pioneering spirit of those founding sisters, who stepped out in faith in the days when community hospitals were uncommon and largely served the gravely ill. It’s the same spirit in which McAuley and the women who joined her order left behind everything they had to serve others in the name of Christ, inspiring thousands of women to become Sisters of Mercy working in education, health care and pastoral work.
The sisters who founded the hospital “were the sisters at St. Vincent’s (Academy), which is still an academy that the sisters run down there in Savannah,” she said.
“They had barely enough sisters to work there, and somebody else calls and says we need you here. Part of the characteristic of the order is kind of reliance on God that says, ‘OK, we’ll send you what we have’ and that’s how it grew up,” said Sister Jane. “There were temporary military hospitals during the (Civil) war and those hospitals closed up. And our sisters actually served in a number of those hospitals during the war.”
And God did provide, as prominent Atlantans, including the J.J. Haverty, Spalding, Rich, Tribble, McWhorter, and Bellman families, provided generous support early on that was key to Saint Joseph’s continued growth.
Hospital Steadily Grows, Relocates, Pioneers Cardiac Care
By the early 1900s, the hospital had opened a nursing school, which later became the first accredited one in Georgia, and a new surgical wing, and by the 1920s it continued to expand with new operating rooms and a Gothic chapel. During the 1930s and ‘40s it responded to community needs by opening Haverty Hall, a ward for indigent patients and an outpatient clinic for the rural poor. By 1953 the hospital had purchased five more acres and moved into a modern, $4 million facility on Ivy Street.
Medical breakthroughs accompanied the hospital’s growth. In 1957 Hopkins performed the first open heart surgery in the Southeast; in the 1960s and ‘70s the hospital opened the Southeast’s first cardiac catheterization lab and first pacemaker clinic and as an alternative to bypass surgery performed the region’s first transluminal coronary angioplasty.
Needing to change with the times, a major decision was made in 1978 under the leadership of Sister Mary Brian Anderson to relocate the hospital from downtown to what was then north Atlanta. Among other later advances, in 2002 Saint Joseph’s became Georgia’s first hospital to offer robotic assisted, totally endoscopic, closed chest heart surgery and last year acquired the Leksell Gamma Knife C, the most advanced treatment for brain disease.
Sister Jane said that sisters served as the hospital’s CEO until the early 1980s when her lay position was created after the business side of the job grew immensely and there were fewer sisters trained for or desiring the position. She’s particularly proud of Mercy Care Services provided to the poor through the fundraising support of the Mercy Foundation.
When the hospital moved, staff went back downtown to serve the poor in church basements and at shelters, starting with washing and caring for feet. The program was formalized as Saint Joseph’s Mercy Care Services in 1985 and now provides a wide variety of care through mobile clinics and at permanent sites.
“I thought there was a wonderful kind of biblical connection to washing the feet of other people, but that’s what they did,” Sister Jane said. “And that’s what is done now with our Mercy Care Services, whose budget is about $10 million a year, with primary care clinics, mobile clinics, residential services … AIDS outreach, all of which I’m really proud of.”
Sister Jane, a former college dean and English professor, ensures the entire hospital embodies that same mission and above all that patients are treated with “utmost dignity” and that “it’s a wonderful place to work and employees are treated fairly.” She also works with volunteers, with the hospital ethics program and various other areas and loves the challenge of fostering both medical excellence and Mercy mission.
“I’ve learned to love it. Health care is very, very complex, highly regulated, and it has pressures on it from all sides … What I like about it is the challenge to try to make the market work for our mission. We’ve got to be competitive in the market, we’ve got to be businesslike and use all the modern, sophisticated techniques, but the idea (remains) of just doing what’s really, really good for people. And I believe that people have a right to good health care,” she said. “People are sick and suffering here, but the employees bring a whole lot of joy to it. They’re generous; they’re enthusiastic; they’re talented.”
One service that keeps employees happy is an educational program where staff members can identify the next job they want to move into and take hospital classes to train for it. “We say there’s no such thing as a dead-end job here,” said the sister, who joined the order after high school to serve God.
And, yes, her expertise in Irish poet W.B. Yeats, the subject of her doctoral thesis, is useful in this healing ministry.
“I think studying literature really does attune you to the complexity of human life in its joys and sorrows, in all the ways that people are.”
Patient Receives New Heart, Hope
Jeff Hill is one patient with profound gratitude for Saint Joseph’s, as he received a heart transplant that saved his life. After flu attacked his heart, Hill experienced heart failure in December 2003 and checked in for the first time at Saint Joseph’s where he was extremely sick for 48 days, waiting for a donor in the Coronary Care Unit. One technician gave him a mustard seed encased in amber to remind him that even the littlest faith can move mountains. His primary nurse brought him a prayer on hope. Those gifts “meant the world,” and he believes the spiritual support was critical to his “hanging on” long enough to find a donor, as many times he just wanted to go home and die.
A nondenominational Christian, he prayed with the chaplains, and finally in January was matched with a donor. On the day of his surgery, he was “very scared.”
“I had planned my funeral, and one of the nuns came in and sat down and prayed for my old heart and the new heart. They were always available for any spiritual help,” he recalled, in a phone interview from his home in Sugar Hill.
He believes the hospital is a “very, very valuable” service to the community.
“There it didn’t matter to them whether I was Baptist or Methodist, the spirit was of love and care. They had prayer ever day and I found that was quite helpful just to keep my spirits up. It was very easy to lose faith and hope,” he continued. “I had gotten so sick and so depressed with all of the medications and vomiting and suffering, the emotional aspect of it was a very important aspect of my recovery and being able to receive a heart. I really believe if I hadn’t had that kind of spiritual support I’d not be here.”
Within 24 hours of the surgery he was walking around and eating a meal. Ten days later he was home again. Today he’s “feeling great” and looking for work and has even swung a golf club.
The Pastoral Care Department of 10 staff chaplains is always available to provide emotional and spiritual support to every patient, as well as to family and staff members, said Sister Valentina Sheridan, RSM, director of pastoral care. This sister, who smiles often and wears an anniversary pin on her dress, said that chaplains, including Father Steve Yander, a priest of the archdiocese, and those of other Christian denominations, are each assigned to a certain area and work closely with staff. Patients can also have a clergy member outside of the hospital called. A rabbi regularly visits. Among their services they also have a clinical pastoral education program in partnership with Northside Hospital and Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta at Scottish Rite Hospital and a program on end-of-life issues for the community. Mass is celebrated Sunday through Friday at 11 a.m. and interfaith prayer services are regularly held.
“We provide spiritual care 24/7 so there’s never a time when a chaplain is not available,” Sister Valentina said.
The Sister of Mercy, who has worked at the hospital for 11 years, described their work as a ministry of presence where they largely listen to patients and help them to look inward and identify what they’re experiencing. She’s found that when a patient is dying often the family struggles with unresolved relational issues. And staff members have had sensitivity training in the needs of other cultures and faiths.
“We don’t go in with our own agenda and say this is what I’m going to do for this person. It is where is this person and you just give them an opportunity to express where they are and what their needs are and then respond to their needs, just to be available to them. We don’t force anything on anybody,” she said.
Staff members also visit different departments throughout the year to pray with hospital workers, and “we have people call from a department and say, ‘we’ve had a lot going on and would you come over and pray with our staff?’”
“I’m not saying it’s perfect, but that’s what I love about this place; it’s a spirit of hospital care with respect and compassion that keeps me going,” added the cheerful sister and former parish administrator.
Hospital Participates In National Research
CEO Phipps noted that any time the hospital initiates a new project, program or service they must get approval from a committee of sisters and board members. She said they also have strong specialties in orthopedics and oncology and general surgery and have been recognized for gastroenterology and neurosciences. Furthermore, they have about 460 research studies currently.
“Most people think of us as heart and vascular, but all of our services are award-winning at this point. And the other is all the research. Most people think that all the research is done in academic hospitals, but we do a significant amount of research which allows our patients to get access to cutting edge technology,” Phipps said.
Twenty-five-year employee and chief of staff Dr. Eugene Davidson, a general surgeon, had been an eight-year faculty member at Emory’s School of Medicine and was attracted to Saint Joseph’s specializations. He noted Saint Joseph’s uniqueness in being both a community and tertiary hospital, with many getting referrals there, including a high percentage with major illnesses and complex cases. Many very talented physicians, including those from medical school faculties, are attracted to this, he said, adding that among their lesser known strengths they have a “world class anesthesia department.”
“It’s a very unique institution with a very spiritual basis and a very high level of skill in terms of nursing care and medical staff. It’s a very unique institution as far as a community hospital, as far as the mix of types of patients. Part of what’s appealing to me is it’s more like a tertiary, referral hospital,” he said. “They’ve always encouraged that and dealing with that segment of the population.”
Davidson, who is Jewish, also noted the benefit of pastoral care. On the staff “we’re an eclectic mix, but I think everybody, regardless of religious background, regards the fact that what makes the hospital unique is the spiritual presence and background in the way the hospital functions. In Atlanta, for sure, it’s a unique institution for that reason,” he said. “For many patients over the years, it’s been a really strong point that there’s been the pastoral counseling and care on the spot and being applied without regard to what denomination the patient is. That’s a really profound difference and strong point for Saint Joseph’s,” he said.
So as Davidson and the entire staff strive on into the 21st century to continue to pioneer on the medical frontier and provide clinically excellent medical care, Sister Jane is grateful to see many embrace the Mercy mission of humble service.
That spirit “is alive and it’s being carried on obviously not just by the few sisters that are here, but by the administrators and employees … There’s still a little bit of mystery, a magic to it, that it just keeps being passed on by employees. They’ve really taken hold of it and made it their own,” she said.
As an anniversary magazine timeline concludes, the hospital “journeys from good to great, building on that same courage, faith and vision demonstrated by those original four sisters 125 years ago.”
For information on Saint Joseph’s Health System, visit www.stjosephsatlanta.org or call (404) 851-7001.