Diocese continuing the legacy of Catholic health care in region

Bishop Stika names Sister of Mercy physician to direct new health services, St. Luke Guild ministry


CARRYING ON THE LEGACY Sister Mariana Koonce, RSM, MD, (left) is leading the Diocese of Knoxville’s new health-care ministry—the Office of Health Services and the St. Luke Guild. The ministry is a continuation of the legacy established by the Sisters of Mercy when they began operating St. Mary’s Hospital in Knoxville in 1930. Photo by Dan McWilliams

CARRYING ON THE LEGACY Sister Mariana Koonce, RSM, MD, (left) is leading the Diocese of Knoxville’s new health-care ministry—the Office of Health Services and the St. Luke Guild. The ministry is a continuation of the legacy established by the Sisters of Mercy when they began operating St. Mary’s Hospital in Knoxville in 1930. Photo by Dan McWilliams

Sister Mariana Koonce has been in East Tennessee only since October, but already she feels a kinship with St. Mary’s Hospital, the longtime Catholic medical facility in Knoxville that has changed hands and now is part of a for-profit hospital corporation.

And it’s that connection and an ambitious plan to restore Catholic-based health care throughout the diocese in a new format that has Sister Mariana invoking the name of Mother Catherine McAuley.

Sister Mariana, a physician who is with the Religious Sisters of Mercy of Alma, Mich., is connected to the Sisters of Mercy that started St. Mary’s in 1930 through their mutual foundress. So she shares in the Sisters of Mercy’s mission to bring health care to underserved areas, just as Sisters of Mercy founder Mother McAuley designed and the Sisters of Mercy have been doing for more than 80 years in Knoxville.

St. Mary’s was acquired by the Health Management Associates Inc. hospital network in October 2011 and now is operated as Tennova Healthcare. In Chattanooga, Catholic-based Memorial Health System operates two hospitals. Because there is no longer a Catholic hospital in Knoxville, providing Catholic health care to the poor of East Tennessee becomes more challenging and requires a new vehicle, literally.

As the Diocese of Knoxville’s new director of health services, Sister Mariana is leading the new medical mission, which will use teams of volunteers to administer health care to communities in need across the diocese through a mobile clinic—a doctor’s office on wheels.

The teams of volunteers will be organized through the St. Luke Guild. The Guild, named for the patron saint of physicians, is officially up and running. Among Sister Mariana’s first acts is to encourage registration in the Guild. She also is assembling an advisory board to assist her in managing the health-care organization.

“Right now we’re still in an organizational phase, encouraging people to register with the Guild. We’re still looking for board members from across the diocese,” she said. “The St. Luke Guild is for anyone in health care who is Catholic.”

She is particularly interested in establishing broad representation from throughout the diocese, not just Knoxville. She noted that physicians, nurses, technicians, administrators, and others with health-care experience—either clinical or administrative—are encouraged to sign on with the St. Luke Guild.

She also noted that service in the guild could be especially appealing to retirees who want to remain active in applying their health-care skills. Since Tennessee law has special provisions for those who serve solely in free clinics, both for licensing and liability coverage, retirees still can potentially participate.

Registration in the Guild is not solely a means for gathering volunteers, however.  Sister Mariana said the vision for the Guild is emerging to be three-fold.

The first vision is education. “What does it mean to be Catholic and what does it mean to be Catholic in health care?” she asked. “To be a Catholic in health care is going to be a challenge. How do we remain authentic as Catholics and still provide health care?”

The second vision is service and filling a Catholic health-care vacuum from the departure of Knoxville’s only Catholic hospital. This is where the mobile clinic comes in. However, the need is not only for volunteers to staff the clinic, but in clinicians who are willing to participate in a referral network. Inevitably there will be health-care problems that cannot be addressed fully in a mobile environment.

And the third part of the St. Luke Guild vision is spiritual enrichment, particularly through retreats and other venues.

“I see spiritual enrichment as being the key element that brings success to the other two visions,” Sister Mariana said. “It takes faith. I feel a particular connection to the Sisters of Mercy and what they accomplished here. It took faith then (starting St. Mary’s Hospital), and it takes faith now.”

Bishop Richard F. Stika agrees. It has been his vision to expand the Sisters of Mercy’s role in health care throughout the diocese.

“When we created the St. Mary’s Legacy Foundation, one of the aims was to continue the good works of the Sisters of Mercy and the Ladies of Charity in assisting poverty-stricken areas in the diocese. We’re also bringing together all Catholics involved in health care in the diocese to utilize their talents and gifts for the grace of Jesus,” Bishop Stika said.

Bishop Stika pointed out that many Catholic churches have worthwhile missions to aid poverty-stricken areas in other countries like Ghana and Haiti, but there also is a need in East Tennessee counties.

“There exists silent suffering in our area because of a lack of health care,” he said.“

Bishop Stika is confident the diocese’s health services initiative, including health-care outreach and the St. Luke Guild, will be successful.

“If we invite the Lord to be with us, then all things are possible. As my motto says, ‘Jesus, I trust in you,’” Bishop Stika said.

He noted that the St. Mary’s Legacy Foundation, for which 44 percent of all granted dollars are restricted to funding health initiatives, is instrumental in supporting the diocese’s health ministry. The St. Mary’s Legacy Foundation also funds other education and charity initiatives.

The Office of Health Services program’s mobile clinic will be predominantly funded through the St. Mary’s Legacy Foundation of East Tennessee, which was formed in 2011 to continue providing support for the ministry begun by the Sisters of Mercy through St. Mary’s Hospital. The foundation initially was made possible through funds provided by the sale of St. Mary’s parent company, Mercy Health Partners, to Health Management Associates. The foundation funds health care and education programs in the diocese.

“The St. Mary’s Legacy Foundation’s mission is to continue the works of mercy as they started with Mother Catherine McAuley in Dublin and continued here in East Tennessee,” said John Deinhart, St. Mary’s Legacy Foundation staff officer.

While the mobile clinic will fill a void, it will not be a hospital, according to Sister Mariana, pointing out that the clinic will be an opportunity for the diocese to offer health care in a new, innovative way for those in need. It will be a mobile network where the health care goes to the patients rather than the reverse, which is how care now is configured.

“What we’re talking about here is representing Catholic health care in a different mode given our current government and the secularization of society and culture,” she said. “It’s going to look different than Catholic health care in the past, with the large hospitals. It goes back to the old-fashioned value of how you treat the patient and give them the best possible service required, treating each patient as if he or she were Christ himself.”

Because of changes in the East Tennessee health-care climate and the loss of St. Mary’s, the mobile clinic will have to partner with other providers, such as lab and diagnostic services, that may not be Catholic. While the St. Luke Guild is particularly designed for Catholic health-care professionals and will adhere to Catholic teachings on birth control, abortion, euthanasia and other medical issues, the services of the mobile clinic are for the entire community regardless of religious affiliation.

“This is for everybody. As Catholics, we’ve never limited our services to just our religion,” Sister Mariana said.

The urban areas of Chattanooga, Knoxville and the Tri-Cities are well-served by health-care facilities, which is why Sister Mariana wants to focus on rural areas with limited or no access to health care. The mobile clinic will not be a repeat of Remote Area Medical’s efforts to deliver periodic health care to poverty-stricken areas around the country and world, including East Tennessee. Sister Mariana explained that the mobile clinic will deliver regular, consistent care to the underserved areas.

“We want to make a sustained impact on communities over time,” Sister Mariana said. “I think this is a piece of the future of health care. It gives us the flexibility to go where the needs are as opposed to a fixed facility.”

She said federal health care reform, namely the Affordable Care Act, will not diminish the need for the mobile clinic. The need still will be there and should be met now, which is why Sister Mariana isn’t waiting for health-care reform to take place. Despite the uncertainties of health- care reform, Sister Mariana believes the timing couldn’t be better for the St. Luke Guild and the mobile clinic venture.

The Year of Faith presents an opportunity to put into practice what Pope Benedict XVI and Bishop Stika have been urging, she pointed out, noting that during this holy year Pope Benedict is calling for each Catholic to be a witness of charity and to intensify our own credible witness within our lives.

She cited the Apostolicam Actuositatem, the Decree on the Apostolate of Lay People from the Second Vatican Council, that said, “Wherever there are people in need of food and drink, clothing, housing, medicine, employment, education; wherever men lack the facilities necessary for living a truly human life or are afflicted with serious distress or illness or suffer exile or imprisonment, there Christian charity should seek them out and find them, console them with great solicitude, and help them with appropriate relief. This obligation is imposed above all upon every prosperous nation and person.”

“How are we living our lives?” Sister Mariana asked. “This fulfills that mission. This binds us to the decree. We have to do it. We need to do it. The love of Christ should impel us to do it. It’s particularly relevant to our Christian calling and what Pope Benedict has asked of us in the Year of Faith.”

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