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Why Catholic? Meet Bishop Nelson J. Perez

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UH St. John Medical Center prides itself on retaining its Catholic identity

News of the Diocese

January 10, 2020

UH St. John Medical Center prides itself on retaining its Catholic identity
UH St. John Medical Center prides itself on retaining its Catholic identity
UH St. John Medical Center prides itself on retaining its Catholic identity
UH St. John Medical Center prides itself on retaining its Catholic identity
UH St. John Medical Center prides itself on retaining its Catholic identity
UH St. John Medical Center prides itself on retaining its Catholic identity

St. John Medical Center, part of the University Hospitals network, continues to maintain its identity as a Catholic hospital. Crosses can be seen in hospital rooms and in the hallways. There is a chapel adjacent to the front entrance and just outside the main entrance is a statue of Jesus with his arms spread to welcome all who enter the facility.

Bishop Nelson Perez paid his second visit to the 204-bed acute-care hospital on Jan. 10. He spent time chatting with hospital administrators and members of the pastoral care team before taking a brief tour of the full-service hospital that offers comprehensive medical and surgical care for children and adults. It sits on a nearly 50-acre campus at 29000 Center Ridge Road, Westlake.

Robert David is hospital president and Cathy Knorzer is chief nursing officer. They said in addition to its strong pastoral care program, the hospital also researches and follows Catholic guidelines for medical treatments and procedures.

The bishop, who has an extensive background in psychology and spent years visiting patients in hospitals, relayed his personal experience on both sides of the bedrail with hospital personnel. He said a great deal of his priestly – before his elevation to bishop -- and professional visits had been to hospitals.

The bishop shared how he was badly injured in an accident on Dec. 19, 2012 on the Long Island Expressway. His car was one of more than 30 hit by a tractor-trailer that was hauling debris from Hurricane Sandy, which devastated the East Coast in October of that year. The truck driver fell asleep and careened into one car after another, causing a chain-reaction pileup. Bishop Perez was in the second car hit; the driver of the first car was killed and more than 30 others, including the bishop -- who only six months earlier had been installed as an auxiliary bishop in the Diocese of Rockville Centre – were seriously injured.

“My personal experience as a patient who spent more than two weeks in the hospital gave me a new dimension based on my experience on the other side of the bedrail,” he told hospital officials. He explained how he learned firsthand that patients must surrender themselves to the expert care of medical professionals – even if they don’t know or understand what is happening.

“It can be very scary,” he said.

Bishop Perez also recalled the compassion shown by some of his caregivers, singling out the important role that nurses play. He mentioned one nurse who gave him tiny slivers of ice chips. “It was exactly what I needed at that time,” the bishop said, remembering the tenderness and compassion of the nurse. “Even after all these years I remember her name and what she looked like,” he said.

During his hospital stay, the bishop said he developed relationships with many of his caregivers and said he even witnessed some of their weddings and baptized some of their children. He urged the hospital personnel to remember the important role they play in the lives of patients and their families.

They also talked about how the medical field has changed in recent years with the introduction of medical privacy laws. One staff member said an unintended consequence of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 -- commonly referred to as HIPAA – is that hospital chaplains and parish priests may not know about parishioners or Catholics who are hospitalized unless the patient or a family member agrees to share that information. This could keep some from receiving spiritual care and the sacraments, including holy Communion. Notre Dame Sister Kendra Bottoms, director of pastoral care, said members of her department are important conduits, often sharing that information with members of the clergy in order to provide needed spiritual care for patients and their families.

St. John Medical Center evolved from a partnership between St. John Hospital, formerly located on Cleveland’s West Side, and Bay View Hospital in Bay Village. St. John’s was founded in 1890 by the Sisters of St. Francis and later was operated by the Sisters of Charity of St. Augustine. Bay View, an osteopathic hospital, was established in 1948 in the former Lawrence mansion on Lake Road. It wanted to expand but was unable to get the necessary approvals, so it developed a partnership with St. John Hospital.

The Westlake facility opened in 1981. St. John’s also continued to operate is 200-bed hospital in Cleveland until 1990 and the emergency room remained open until 1993. The former hospital building now houses St. Augustine Health Ministries, offices for Catholic Charities, Diocese of Cleveland, a day care center and other ministries.

During their discussion, hospital officials told the bishop one of their priorities is to continue working to develop stronger relationships with area parishes. They offer outreach programs, including teaching cardiopulmonary resuscitation classes, to parishioners. Parish priests also visit parishioners, if notified of their hospitalization or if requested. Father Dan Fickes, a diocesan priest, is the full-time Catholic priest assigned to the hospital. A Byzantine priest and other clergy also visit patients. Sister Kendra signals the start of the day with prayer and a hymn, a routine anticipated and appreciated by employees, patients and visitors. Meetings begin with prayer – somethings others from the UH heath system respect.

The bishop reminded hospital officials of the importance of pastoral care in concert with medical care. He shared one experience he had as a pastor when he was called in the middle of the night to visit a patient at a nearby hospital that did not have a pastoral care staff.

He said hospital personnel later told him the man was sobbing after he left – not because of something he said, but because he was so touched that a priest came to see him at his time of need.

“The man said he was so happy because the Church came to visit him – not me, not a priest – the Church. Something like that really grounds you,” Bishop Perez said. “Patients are scared and vulnerable and you are touching people at a very critical time in their lives, at a moment of great vulnerability. The impact is longstanding,” he added.

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