From an emergency room to an outpatient clinic to services for the homeless, a top official from the Vatican visited the U.S. last month, in part to get a close-up look at how Roman Catholic healthcare works in America.
Archbishop Javier Lozano Barragan--Pope John Paul II's point man on healthcare--got a whirlwind tour of Pittsburgh Mercy Health System and its flagship 422-bed Mercy Hospital of Pittsburgh.
Barragan, who oversees the church's worldwide healthcare ministry, is president of the Vatican's Pontifical Council for Pastoral Assistance to Health Care Workers.
The 600 Catholic hospitals in the U.S. account for about 10% of the Catholic hospitals scattered throughout the world, Barragan says. He had come to America primarily to speak at an annual meeting of Catholic physicians that was being held in Pittsburgh.
But as part of his visit, the Catholic Health Association arranged a morning meeting and tour to be hosted by Pittsburgh Mercy, part of Newtown Square, Pa.-based Catholic Health East. The St. Louis-based CHA represents more than 2,000 Catholic healthcare providers in the U.S.
The CHA's president and chief executive officer, the Rev. Michael Place, also leads an international group of Catholic healthcare associations that works in concert with Barragan's Pontifical Council.
The meeting with Barragan included Place discussing the financial pressures facing U.S. hospitals in general, as well as other challenges facing Catholic healthcare in particular, including a growing dependence on laypeople to run the ministry as the numbers of people in religious vocations--priests and nuns--continue to drop.
Barragan called it a "very, very big challenge" to make sure laypeople are prepared for this role.
Barragan's tightly scheduled visit got off to a late start, because his flight from Rome had been delayed, resulting in his late arrival the night before. But upon arrival, he looked regal, decked out in a long black robe adorned with a wide fuchsia sash and matching zucchetto, or skullcap.
After a quick slide-show presentation to give him an overview of Catholic healthcare in America--as well as the services Pittsburgh Mercy offers--Barragan was off on a VIP tour.
Gregg Zoller, Pittsburgh Mercy's president and CEO, was proud to have his system held up as an example for the pope's emissary.
"This organization really is a great example of the Catholic health ministry," Zoller said.
On the tour, Barragan was accompanied by an entourage of CHA and Pittsburgh Mercy officials, the media and other Catholic healthcare leaders, including Sister Florence Brandt, president and CEO of St. Francis Health System, the other Roman Catholic system based in Pittsburgh.
The first stop was the emergency room, where Barragan heard about a program Mercy runs jointly with a women's shelter where the hospital screens for victims of domestic violence.
"It's a very unfortunate part of the American culture . . . there's so much violence in the household," Place told Barragan.
On a visit to the hospital's outpatient clinic for children, Barragan posed for a picture with Risa Abrams, a 4-year-old Pittsburgh girl, who told the crowd she was really 6.
"She's a star now," Place said of Risa, who was weighed at the clinic and tipped the scales at 441/2 pounds.
Before heading out on a bus tour of some of the neighborhoods Mercy serves, Barragan met James Withers, M.D., medical director of Mercy's Operation Safety Net, an outreach program that brings medical care to the city's homeless.
Barragan was asked to bless a new, donated mobile home, which will be converted into a medical clinic and counseling center for the program.
Barragan's tour of the neighborhood included a stop at Wellspring, a community mental health drop-in program serving the homeless.
A group meeting at the center was under way when Barragan arrived. Some of the participants got up to hug him.
Back at the hospital, Barragan received a tour of the neonatal intensive-care unit, where the smallest baby weighed only 11/2 pounds. "Very small," he said while gazing in at the children and asking the attending physician about their prognoses.
In the NICU, Place explained to Barragan that sometimes people and their families don't have insurance coverage or money to pay for the care they receive.
"With the little kids that I saw, it is wonderful because it is a real service of the Mercy Hospital to the community," Barragan said.