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Saint Francis Hospital celebrates 100 years

Chris Dorst
The outside of the emergency room at Saint Francis Hospital. The hospital was founded in 1913 by Bishop Patrick Donahue.
Chris Dorst Saint Francis Hospital celebrates its 100th anniversary this year.
Courtesy photo A few years after Saint Francis was founded, a second building was added to meet demand. This building was demolished in 1985 to make way for the present day facility.
Courtesy photo Saint Francis Hospital was founded in the Laidley Estate in 1913 at 333 Laidley St., where it remains today.
Courtesy photo Past nurses of the hospital pose in front of the old building in this picture taken in the 1970s.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A lot has changed at Saint Francis Hospital since it opened in a remodeled house on Laidley Street a century ago.

The Catholic hospital, then with about 30 beds, is now a 155-bed hospital with a one-day surgery center, pain relief center and the area's only hyperbaric oxygen treatment facility, just to name a few of its features.

But despite the changes, longtime staff members say the hospital's culture and mission have stayed the same since the sisters of St. Francis from New York started the hospital in 1913.

"The one thing that I've always been impressed with [at] this place is the focus it's had on the patients," said Dan Lauffer, chief operating officer at Thomas Health System, Saint Francis' parent company. "That's a culture that was actually begun and started by the sisters. I think that's something that was here when I got here in 1996 and remains today."

The hospital celebrates its 100th anniversary this year.

West Virginia's Roman Catholic bishop, Father Patrick Donahue, founded the hospital in 1913 at an estate at 333 Laidley St., where it remains today.

The sisters arrived from New York to manage the hospital Dec. 13, 1913, and the hospital opened Jan. 15, 1914.

In 1921, the sisters of St. Francis were recalled to Williamson and replaced with five nuns from the sisters of St. Joseph of Wheeling, who owned it until 1995.

Changing hands

That year, the sisters sold Saint Francis to hospital chain Columbia-HCA. In 2006, Columbia-HCA sold the hospital to LifePoint Hospitals Inc. as part of a larger deal involving four hospitals in two states. A few months later in early 2007, Lifepoint sold it to Thomas Health System, which also owns Thomas Memorial Hospital in South Charleston. Thomas Health System continues to own it today.

Ownership may change, Lauffer said, but the way the hospital treats its patients hasn't.

"People in board rooms elsewhere can make decisions about selling us or buying us," Lauffer said. "The one thing that the employees can do every day that matters, that they have control over, is how we treat our patients."

The culture of the hospital has stayed the same, said sister Virginia "Ginny" Yeager, the director of pastoral care.

"That sense of care, wanting to offer health care in a manner that reflects Jesus Christ's mission and the way he was with people, those things have never changed," Yeager said.

Lauffer recalled a favorite story about the hospital staff helping to go the extra mile for a patient.

An emergency room doctor took his shoes off and gave them to a patient who needed them more than he did, Lauffer said.

It was a snowy night and the patient, a homeless man wearing a pair of too-small shoes he had been given, showed up in the emergency room with foot pain and a myriad of other problems.

When the patient left, the doctor realized he had forgotten to consider that the man's shoe size could have been causing him problems.

The doctor walked outside to find him and found out he typically wore the same size shoes the doctor was wearing, but was using a smaller pair. The doctor gave the man his own shoes and walked back into the ER shoeless.

"Our nurses were saying what happened and he said, 'I gave my shoes to the guy we just discharged because I forgot to ask him what size shoes he wore and I figured he needed them more than I did,'" Lauffer said. "That was an email I got the very next day. Our nurses were just absolutely blown away by his generosity. That's kind of been the mission here for a long, long time."

As a Catholic hospital, the facility attracts staff members who see health care not only as a job, but as a way to fulfill a call to care for the sick.

That's the way Maria Rendinell, an associate administrator for the hospital, has viewed her job since she started at Saint Francis in 1984.

"I truly believe that health care is a ministry," said Rendinell, who is Catholic. "I feel that in any capacity that you work in health care, you're ministering to the sick.

"You can be paid for that but there's no better paycheck than the gratitude and when you go home at the end of the day you know that you've done something good for people," she said.

Rendinell came to Charleston from Youngstown, Ohio, and worked as a licensed practical nurse throughout the city before going to nursing school, she said.

Something was different about Saint Francis, she said.

"It was just a feeling that I felt like I was at home," Rendinell said. "I knew after I went to nursing school and came back as a [registered nurse] that I wanted to work here."

When Rendinell's husband developed lung cancer at an early age, he was diagnosed and treated at Saint Francis. He ultimately died there, too. He didn't want to die in their home, she said.

"For me, he kind of did die in my home because this is my home too," Rendinell said. "That's not necessarily a happy memory but it's a memory that keeps this as part of my family."

Mary Williams, director of volunteer services, has worked at Saint Francis for 32 years.

Williams' mother, who was a Saint Francis volunteer, encouraged her to work for the hospital. Now Williams has come to love the hospital, just as her mother did.

To her, the volunteers and the staff are like family.

"We're small enough in numbers that we get to know each other but they're still big enough to provide the care for our patients," Williams said.

Ann Hammack, continuing medical education coordinator, has worked at the hospital since 1967. She was part of one of the last graduating classes to go through the Saint Francis nursing school before it closed in 1961.

"There was never any question except I would go to Saint Francis [for nursing school]," Hammack said. "I had aunts that went here as well."

There were eight women in her graduating class and Hammack says they were like sisters. Over all these years, that family atmosphere hasn't changed, she said.

"It is a family," Hammack said. "That's the way we were in nursing school ... It's been that way as a nurse and also with the other employees."

A spirit of healing

The sisters may not own the hospital anymore, but faith is still a major component of the hospital's care.

There are three certified chaplains, including Yeager.

Each morning starts with a prayer over the loud speaker. A chapel provides a place for patients and family to pray or leave their prayer requests.

Catholic hospitals take very seriously their focus on patients' spiritual care, Yeager said.

"Whenever someone is sick ... if you just even get a cold, everything's affected-- how you relate to people, how you feel about yourself that day, whatever," Yeager said. "Those are spiritual issues for people, so you can imagine people in a hospital setting also being affected at a deeper level than just a cold that day."

Even those who are not Catholic notice the difference, Rendinell said.

"And I think our patients here love hearing the prayer every morning," she said. "Not many places you can pray in the morning."

The hospital hasn't been immune to controversy and in the 1950s, was the setting for a civil rights dispute. In May of 1951, 23 white nurses walked out of their jobs when the hospital refused to fire three black nurses.

"It was probably the first time you heard about what would be considered a civil rights issue," Lauffer said. "But it was a situation where there were some black nurses who were hired here at the hospital and there were a number of nurses who were concerned about the hospital hiring black nurses.

"The sisters were confronted by the employees and had some objections to it and they said that they were going to stand their ground and the black nurses were obviously welcome to continue working here," Lauffer said. "There were a lot of employees who either left or were terminated because of the dispute."

Sister Helen Clare, the hospital's superintendent at the time, told the Charleston Daily Mail that the Catholic Church had endeavored to fight racial prejudices and injustices and so the hospital refused to fire anyone because of race.

Being a small, faith-based medical facility down the street from Charleston Area Medical Center, with its four hospital campuses, hasn't been a bad thing, hospital administrators say.

CAMC has one of two Level 1 trauma centers in the state. But administrators say despite its size, the hospital competes with most anything a larger hospital can do.

Saint Francis has the state's only retinal surgeons in the state. They also have the only ear, nose and throat group in the city, Rendinell said.

"Anything else, as long as it's not trauma, we can treat it here," Rendinell said.

And its size means there are things Saint Francis can do better than larger medical facilities, Lauffer said.

"We're able to really know our patients, know our employees, know our community," he said. "If you're in a big place, not because you're good or bad, but you're just so big you don't have the ability.

The partnership between Saint Francis and Thomas Memorial in South Charleston is going well for both hospitals, said Steve Dexter, CEO of Thomas Health System.

"The commitment we made at Saint Francis when we came together was that every penny we generated here we would reinvest into Saint Francis, and we've been able to do that," Dexter said. "We've put about $25 million into facility improvements, all generated at Saint Francis."

And the hospitals have been able to cut back on duplication of services. They used to compete with one another, Dexter said.

"Now [we] say, 'Look, it makes more sense to do this at Saint Francis, [and] it makes more sense to do this at Thomas,'" he said.

As they face the future, administrators say they want to continue to attract the best doctors and provide them the technology they need to do their jobs well.

"We spend a lot of time recruiting new, young doctors that are cutting-edge. We want to make sure they have the technology they need so they can practice their specialty," Dexter said.

There will be changes related to the Affordable Care Act, but the hospital is prepared for that challenge, Rendinell said.

"In the 30 years that I've been in health care every year is a challenge," she said. "There are changes that are never-ending. We know that. So is it the end? No. It's just the next challenge."

And if there's one thing that a hospital that's been around as long as Saint Francis can do, it's adapt to change, Lauffer said.

"It's like death and taxes. There's things that are always going to happen," he said. "So people have to be nimble to react to change and I think this hospital has done a good job at that."Reach Lori Kersey at lori.kersey@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1240.


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