April 21, 2006

As St. Vincent Health celebrates 125 years, sisters’ mission continues

By John Shaughnessy

Susan Vaught will soon tell the story of what happened to the young, pregnant woman who didn’t have health insurance.

She will then share the stories of the moments that changed the lives of a woman in her 80s and a farmer who lost his land and almost his life.

Yet, right now, Vaught is focused on another story that inspires her in her work with the sick and the poor—a story that reminds her daily of what can be created and accomplished when you pursue a dream with unyielding faith and courage.

In that story, four religious sisters trekked hundreds of miles to Indianapolis in 1881—a time when the city was more rural than urban, a time when prejudice confronted Catholics.

The four Daughters of Charity came with just $34.77 and a dream of taking care of the city’s sick and underserved. As they worked to convert an abandoned seminary into a downtown Indianapolis hospital, the sisters never imagined that they were starting what has become one of the largest healthcare systems in Indiana—16 hospitals serving 45 counties under the name of St. Vincent Health.

As St. Vincent Health celebrates its 125th anniversary on April 26, Susan Vaught will mark the day as she usually does—following in the footsteps of those four sisters. She will serve the sick and the poor at St. Vincent Primary Care Center in Indianapolis, the clinic that gets about 600,000 visits a year from people who often have nowhere else to turn.

“A lot of our patients are the working poor,” said Vaught, the care center’s director of operations. “They’re the people who have the jobs at the fast-food restaurants. And 50 percent of our patients are undocumented Hispanics working in construction or fast-food places.”

She shares the story of the young, pregnant woman who didn’t have health insurance.

“She was a young Hispanic girl,” Vaught said. “She said if it wasn’t for St. Vincent she would have had to have her baby in the apartment where she lived with nine other people because she couldn’t afford to go anywhere else.

“We also had a patient in her 80s who we gave medicine. She said, ‘I would have been dead if the center wasn’t here. I couldn’t afford the medicine.’ She was probably right.”

Both women reacted with tears of gratitude for the people who helped them at the center. Vaught cried herself when she shared the story of the farmer who came to the center for a checkup.

It’s the story of her father.

“He had been a farmer all his life and he lost his farm,” she said. “He had no income. He’s a stoic man. He came in for a checkup. The female physician was doing a full physical. She kept asking him questions and he kept saying he was fine. She didn’t take ‘fine’ for an answer. She asked, ‘Now, Mr. Todd, I want to know if anything is really hurting you.’ He told her, ‘I have this little thing in my chest.’ ”

The doctor sent him to the cardiac clinic where “the little thing” turned out to be two blocked vessels in his heart. He was rushed into surgery.

“He would have died of a heart attack if she hadn’t pushed it,” Vaught said as tears welled in her eyes. “That was six years ago. In those six years, he got to see his six great-grandchildren born.”

The stories remind Vaught of a Daughter of Charity who worked at the clinic with her, Sister Joan Kirchman.

“She passed away two years ago,” Vaught said. “She would always say to me, ‘These are the patients we intended to care for when we first came over. The ones who have fallen through the cracks, the ones no one else wants to take care of.’ We don’t have to do this. We do this because we want to.”

Sister Catherine Kelly is one of the present-day Daughters of Charity. The connection between past and present guides her work as the vice president of mission integration at St. Joseph Hospital in Kokomo, Ind., which is part of St. Vincent Health.

She knows the history of how the four original sisters arrived in Indianapolis at the request of Bishop Francis Silas Chatard, a doctor.

“It was very rural, rustic, and the sisters weren’t wanted,” Sister Catherine said. “There was such an upheaval of discrimination and prejudice against Catholics and sisters at the time. Bishop Chatard bided his time until he thought the sisters would be safe. He knew the sisters would be good for the city.

“When the first sisters came, they had $34.77 in their pockets. Bishop Chatard gave them $50 to add to what they had. That’s the money they had to start the hospital and start their work. It continued to grow, not just because of the four sisters but [also] the lay collaborators who worked with them.”

Ron Mead is among the laypeople who currently work for St. Vincent Health, a contingent that includes 11,300 associates and 2,500 doctors.

“The legacy of the Daughters of Charity starts with integrity—integrity to the poor, integrity to the Daughters’ mission to serve Jesus Christ through the poor,” said Mead, the interim chief mission officer at St. Vincent Indianapolis Hospital. “There’s also a trust in the providence of God.”

That combination—commitment to the poor and the Providence of God—is needed in an age when 47 million people in the United States don’t have health insurance, Mead noted.

“The healthcare needs of our community continue to grow,” said Sister Catherine. “We’re especially glad to be focused on the most vulnerable parts of our community: the material poor, the healthcare poor.”

That focus drew Sister Catherine to the Daughters of Charity 32 years ago.

“I grew up as a product of the ‘60s” she said. “I got caught up in civil rights and social justice—that we’re all created in God’s image and likeness, and we should be respected as such. When I thought about being a sister, I wanted to serve the poor. It’s one of our four vows and the first one we make.”

That vow connects Sister Catherine to the four sisters who came to Indianapolis 125 years ago: Sister Magdalen Kelleher, Sister Mary Theresa O’Connor, Sister Albertine Ott and Sister Oswald Spaulding.

For Sister Catherine, the goal of the Daughters of Charity is still the same as it was when they first arrived in Indiana 125 years ago:

“As long as we keep trying, we can make a difference in the lives of people.” †


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