Mother Mary Odilia Berger founded the Franciscan Sisters of Mary
Patients Have Always Come First Here
Last Sunday’s Milwaukee Journal Sentinel carried a front-page story entitled “Nurses Who Worked Through Covid will Never be the Same.” The story spanned two full pages inside of the main section, signaling the importance the editors assigned to the content. It was a story of the nursing profession in the aftermath of COVID. The omissions and the slant of the reporting were exactly what we expect from the mainstream media. The limited perspective was a great disservice to my fellow nurses and the profession I love. It was largely a message of helplessness and despair. Journalists with integrity would have pursued the rest of the story.
The story featured the experiences and thoughts of two young nurses who practice at SSM Health St. Agnes Hospital in Fon du Lac. The nurses were described as trembling and broken from their COVID experience and the reporter asserts that “Health care workers stand at a crossroads.” She asks, “In the event that another trauma of similar scope struck, would it bring them to their knees?” I am certain of the answer. “Absolutely not.” But things need to change.
The article focused on the massive surges of patients that stretched the nurses and other clinicians far beyond their capacity for a prolonged period of time, the discomfort inflicted by the treatments, and the isolation imposed upon dying patients and their families. The protocols were ever-changing as new variants emerged. The nurses were grief-stricken by so much death and often felt unable to attend to their own well-being. None of this should be minimized in the pursuit of the whole truth.
I have been a professional nurse for nearly 50 years. My ten years of clinical practice were spent in critical care at St. Luke’s Hospital in Milwaukee caring for the sickest of the sick. 22 of my nearly 30 years as a Vice President for Patient Care and Chief Nursing Officer were spent at SSM St. Mary’s in Madison, where my amazing colleagues consistently produced some of the best outcomes in the country. I am highly qualified to speak on this topic.
Bad things happen in life. Those of us who are drawn to health care deal with this reality and circumstances that are often beyond anyone’s control. We see injuries from trauma so gruesome they make us retch. We share the profound grief of a family losing a child or receiving a diagnosis that will change their lives forever. The many ways we are privileged to make a difference in people’s lives soften blows like these – providing them tools to live their best lives, celebrating with them as they bring new life into the world or helping them beat the odds in their battle with illness.
Compassion is an essential asset in helping professions. Nurses, physicians and other clinical disciplines, law enforcement, emergency responders, firefighters and others tap into it routinely. It enables us to make the human connections that are integral to our work. In recent times the term “compassion fatigue” was introduced to explain what some people call “burnout.” It suggests we have a limited capacity to care. It is a version of the destructive theme of victimization we are fed just about everywhere we turn. It has no place here. Our compassion does not debilitate us. Our compassion fuels our resilience.
There is no question that images and experiences, both inspiring and devastating, are seared into the hearts and minds of those who lay hands on patients. They become part of the fabric of who we are. Those who find joy and fulfillment achieve balance and inner peace. This work is not for everyone, but a healthy perspective is accessible to most who are drawn to it.
In 1872, Mother Mary Odilia Berger and 5 other Sisters landed on the St. Louis riverfront from Germany with a mission: “To be the presence of the loving, serving, compassionate, healing Jesus”. They cared for victims of smallpox (they were nicknamed the smallpox Sisters), diphtheria, cholera, yellow fever, and tuberculosis. They carried bells to alert the neighbors they might be contagious. Their resources were meager, but they provided care to all who needed it. Their ledger was filled with names that had ODL written next to them. The ODLs were Our Dear Lords. They could not pay. Today, SSM Health stands as a testament to the Sisters’ humble beginning, operating hospitals, nursing homes, home health care, hospices, pharmacies and physician practices in Missouri, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Oklahoma.
When I joined SSM St. Mary’s in 1991, I visited nurses in every area of the hospital and asked them what the best thing was about practicing at St. Mary’s. The answer came back repeatedly and without hesitation: “Patients have always come first here.” The selfless altruism of the Sisters more than 100 years before had created a lasting legacy of caring so powerful that it continued to inspire employees throughout the organization. They wanted to be part of something they believed in.
Today, the Sisters are gone throughout most of the country. Sisterhood is no longer a calling heard by young women. Health systems that were once literally run by the nuns have been turned over to lay people. In too many health care settings, secular and faith-based, inspiring missions have become lip-service and given way to the pursuit of profit. When what you are doing is different than what you are saying, no one is listening.
It was both sobering and inspiring to have the employees of St. Mary’s tell me patients were the organization’s top priority. This was an all-too-rare sentiment from those on the front lines of healthcare. I understood my responsibility was to protect that sacred trust above all else and I was determined to never lose sight of it. Today, too many health care administrators understand little about the work of the organizations they are running. Their ideas about profitability are in conflict with necessary investments in staffing and other resources. They squeeze those who do the organization’s work beyond reason in their pursuit of the bottom line. They demonstrate little understanding that their primary responsibility is to enable those at the point of care to produce exceptional outcomes by providing them with the resources, information, skills, and voice they need to do their work. Limited resources must be allocated from the point of care out, not from the top down. The miserable failure of health care administration is the true source of caregiver burnout.
Trauma and tragedy will continue to be a part of life and often beyond anyone’s control. Those who are called to heal and help will respond with resilience from within. It will not bring them to their knees. Those who sit at the top of organizations need to stop impeding and start supporting the work of those who lay hands on patients by bringing them to the table, providing them meaningful voice and giving them a reason to say once again “Patients come first here.”
It’s an election year – perhaps the most consequential of our lifetime. Dick Ellis, the Publisher of On Wisconsin Outdoors (OWO), a bi-monthly publication available free at retailers throughout Wisconsin and online at onwisconsinoutdoors.com., is committed to following the truth wherever it leads and exposing corruption wherever he finds it. There is nothing more important to preserving our freedom than election integrity and OWO will be on it all year. We have less than a year to insist we have verifiable elections in Wisconsin and every voice is needed. Follow the reporting on the editorial pages of OWO every issue throughout this election year. You will be armed with the truth and suggestions for citizen action in your local community and at the state level. Let freedom ring!