Bon Secours looks to halt decay, strengthen its corner of Baltimore

December 15, 2011

Latoshia Evans recalls that her “grandmom, mom and dad did not graduate high school,” which makes her bachelor of science degree from Morgan State University all the more meaningful.

Samuel Ross works in a part of town where it is easier to buy a bottle of liquor than a head of fresh lettuce, a far cry from his upbringing in a small Texas town, where he walked home from school at lunchtime to find a meal prepared by his mother and a father whose labor sent six of his seven children through college and inspired the other sibling to become an officer in the military.

Ross is the CEO of Bon Secours Baltimore Health System Inc. Evans is not just one of its employees, but a product of its youth employment program. They bring different perspectives to the hospital in West Baltimore, its assorted affiliates and the challenges there.

As Ross reported earlier this autumn, the Bon Secours system that had a $15.1 million operating deficit in 2007 and laid off 80 employees the following year is solvent and evaluating its current level of service with the goal of enhancing it wherever possible.

In the same way that Bon Secours has stopped the hemorrhaging on its bottom line, it hopes to strengthen its ability to stabilize one of the more blighted areas of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.

Amid plans to add doctors and increase its ability to provide in-home care, the network will need the ongoing charism of the Marriottsville-based Sisters of Bon Secours, whose mission in Baltimore, in some ways, has come full circle.


PARIS TO BALTIMORE


According to the book, “A Century of Caring, Sisters of Bon Secours in the United States, 1881-1981,” it was on an “ad limina” visit to Paris in 1880 when Baltimore’s then-Archbishop James Gibbons, as The Sun reported, saw the sisters “instead of taking the sick to their house and making a hospital of it, go to the homes of those in need of nursing, and remain there.”

He invited the sisters – whose name means “good help” in French – to minister in Baltimore. Three came the next year, more followed and in 1919, the Sisters of Bon Secours opened their first Bon Secours Hospital in the United States, on W. Baltimore St.

“They’re the role model in what we all strive to do, which is help people,” Ross said.

Of the world’s 230 Sisters of Bon Secours, 19 minister in the archdiocese.

“Our presence here is pervasive,” said Sister Mary Shimo.

In addition to sitting on the board of directors for Bon Secours Baltimore Health Systems Inc. and coordinating volunteers for the hospital and 12 local affiliates that range from senior residences to methadone clinics, Sister Mary is the congregation’s international secretary.

Sister Mary, who graduated from The Catholic High School in Baltimore and earned her nursing degree from the University of Maryland Baltimore, last served outside the archdiocese from 1977-83, when she worked at the Bon Secours hospital in Richmond.

“I saw a greater level of need when I returned to Baltimore,” she said. “The hospital was offering more dialysis, more mental health services. The hospital had to change to meet the needs of the community.

A generation later, the decay has accelerated and created a stark assessment of the health of the surrounding community.

According to data distributed by Bon Secours, in Southwest Baltimore the infant mortality rate is 18 per 1,000 births, compared to 7.9 for the state of Maryland. The mortality rate for HIV/AIDS is 10 times as great as the state’s. While not quite as staggering, a local resident is twice as likely to die from heart disease and diabetes.

Whereas the state’s median household income is $56,250, in Southwest Baltimore it is $23,070. The cycle of poverty includes teen pregnancy, drug abuse and a lack of everything from education fresh produce to health insurance, which means too many uninsured patients being re-admitted for chronic issues.

“Eighty to 90 percent of our admissions come through the emergency room,” Ross noted. “We should not be proud of that. We should be ashamed. … West Baltimore needs and deserves better alternatives.”


CHANGING MINISTRIES


Bon Secours, which Ross said employs more than 900 in Baltimore. It is gathering feedback from the neighborhood and seeking solutions to urgent needs, starting literally in the streets.

“Trash and rats,” Sister Anne Lutz said of residents’ concerns at a kickoff event earlier this fall, when Ross and other leaders discussed Bon Secours’ evolving response to the health care crisis in West Baltimore.

“Do we enlarge what we’re doing in Baltimore, change what we’re doing, drop what is no longer needed?” Sister Mary Shimo said. “All that is being evaluated.”

Bon Secours’ “Medical Neighborhood Concept,” according to a news release, means it plans to work “in partnership with community organizations, other healthcare providers, and state and local government to unify an otherwise fragmented delivery system.”

Ross said the hospital will add more primary care doctors to its landmark hospital. Bon Secours’ reach will continue to range from adult education and support groups for multiple sclerosis, lupus and Alzheimer’s at its Community Support Center on Fulton Street; and helping maintain a garden on a nearby corner where residents can grow fresh vegetables.

“All Problems Have Solutions” reads a sign at that plot on the corner of Fayette and Fulton.

Three Sisters of Bon Secours reside across the street, in a residence next to the rectory in since-closed St. Martin Parish, as others besides Sister Mary Shimo and Sister Anne Lutz are active in their work in Baltimore.

Sister Patricia Dowling is president of the board of directors of Bon Secours Community Works, the new brand for what was the Bon Secours of Maryland Foundation. Sister Elaine Davia is a nurse practitioner at a Bon Secours clinic on Payson Street. Sister Nancy Glynn is taking a leadership role in Bon Secours’ local philanthropic foundation (call 410-362-3513 for more information).

Sister Mary Rita Nangle recently retired as a patient advocate, but Ross said “she still comes in (to the hospital) a couple of times a week.”

“Their ministry takes different forms,” Ross said of the Sisters of Bon Secours, “but their mission never changes.”


For a personal reminiscence of the Bon Secours neighborhood, visit CatholicReview.org/mcmullenblog.