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A Message From Leadership: Joanne Robert's Promise Story

Published June 16, 2014

In the summer after I finished medical school, a friend and I decided to spend a month in England and Scotland. One Sunday, I was strolling around the City of London, and I came upon a walking tour of St. Bartholomew’s Hospital – known by Londoners simply as Barts.

Barts was opened in 1123, and initially staffed by church sisters and brothers. Like all hospitals at the time, it was placed just outside the walls of the city. Barts stands across the street from Smithfield, the ancient slaughterhouse of London. Just outside Barts’ gates is the old London execution square, where criminals and heretics were hung, burned, or tortured to death. Henry Wallace – Braveheart – met his end within a few steps of Barts.

Like much of Britain, Barts is both humble and majestic. It is nestled among the ancient and new buildings of the City. It has only 388 beds. It looks almost like a church in a city park. Yet through its wards have walked our icons, such as William Harvey (who discovered circulation) and Florence Nightingale (who founded modern nursing).

To me, the core of Barts is a large painting by William Hogarth in its grand stairwell: Christ at the Pool of Bethesda. (http://www.william-hogarth.de/DavidLowe) It is not a beautiful painting, because it is about suffering. Around the pool are people with Down’s syndrome, tuberculosis, cirrhosis, cachexia, blindness, gout, mastitis, rickets, gonorrhea, and liver cancer. Yet in the center is a calm Jesus, with hand compassionately outstretched to these poor and vulnerable sufferers.

That trip on a summer 29 years ago is the beginning of my Promise Story. The lesson of Barts and the Hogarth painting is that our work of healing is ancient, noble, sacred, and yet humble.

Each day at PRMCE, in small ways and big, I am witness to the ancient art of healing that is so eloquently described in our 19-word mission: “As people of Providence, we reveal God’s love for all, especially the poor and vulnerable, through our compassionate service.” I have worked at seven other institutions across the United States, and while all of them were excellent in their own way, none had a mission that resonated more with my heart, and none lived its mission more than I witness every day at PRMCE.

Some days, I see the simplest elements of healing: a visitor walks down the hall and is met with a smile; a family member, terrified about their loved one’s illness, is guided by a physician from the lobby to the patient’s room; a nurse picks up a scrap from a hallway floor so that the building remains a clean and warm welcoming place; a housekeeper pauses to talk to a family at the bedside. Throughout nearly every day, I hear electricians and transporters and service staff reaching out to strangers with a “Can I help you?” Those moments magnify our mission.

Near the end of my clinical work as a palliative care hospitalist, I was working with the ICU doctors and nurses with a patient with chronic lung disease who was dependent on a mechanical ventilator and who would not live if it were removed. She was terrified about the idea of withdrawing the ventilator and being allowed to die comfortably. The team met with her, and after long periods of her writing out notes to us because she could not speak, it was clear that her anguish was about not living to see the birth of her first grandchild. So the staff arranged a baby shower and celebration for her son, daughter-in-law, and soon-to-be grandchild. It included a baby picture by ultrasound. Once the celebration wound down, she decided to allow the ventilator to be withdrawn, and she died peacefully a few hours later.

Through living the mission that way, the staff and doctors healed the patient, her family, and all of us through the same sort of compassionate service that is exhibited in the painting by Hogarth. The other striking aspect of Hogarth’s painting of Christ at the Pool of Bethesda is that each of the sufferers came to the pool alone, but once there, they became a community for one another.

We are a community, as well, just like those sisters and brothers who opened Barts nearly 900 years ago, all of us committed to healing. And like those sisters and brothers, and like the sufferers at the pool, and like our families, we hold one another up through challenging times.

My promise story returns to an ancient proverb: “None of us is as strong as all of us.” I have learned that none of us can do this work of healing alone. It is only through teamwork, supporting one another, and pushing one another that we will thrive in serving our community with better health, better care, and in an affordable way.

“We have learned that the only solution is love and that love comes with community.” -- Dorothy Day