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Sister DeSales Wisniewski - Ensuring Quality  
Health Care for 23 years

Part one of a two-part series on St. Vincent’s and the business of health care

By Michael Curet

When the Daughters of Charity established St. Vincent’s Hospital in 1916 in Jacksonville, the mission was to provide care to the sick and poor. Sister DeSales Wisniewski certainly took that mission to heart and helped it grow!

The Vice President of Mission Integration at St. Vincent’s since 1992, Sister DeSales bid a tearful goodbye to Jacksonville Dec. 10, 2008, departing for a similar position at St. Agnes Health Care in her native Baltimore, Md.

Sister DeSales has watched St. Vincent’s grow from an efficient Catholic community hospital to a 528-bed medical center that’s one of the top in the country. She’s quick to deflect any credit, however.

“It’s the support of the community and the technology that has driven us to where we are today. This was originally a two-wing hospital and St. Vincent’s was built through a tremendous fundraising effort in the community. As the needs were identified, we added beds and facilities. Somebody once told me, ‘I need somebody to make me do what I can do.’ I have been put in certain circumstances that I didn’t know I could do but I did,” explains Sister DeSales.

Sister DeSales entered religious life with the Daughters of Charity as a teenager. After completing nursing school and a brief stint as a nurse in a Washington, D.C. hospital, she was sent to St. Vincent’s in Jacksonville as an operating room nurse.

“That was the first time I was in charge of anything,” said Sister DeSales. “I found very supportive staff and physicians that taught me a tremendous amount about surgery itself. I found that the physicians were very caring and concerned for their patients.”

Her early days as a nurse in Jacksonville left deep memories too - from counseling a sobbing surgeon in a recovery room after losing a child post-surgery - to happier times when, during a power outage due to a Jacksonville storm, she and Dr. Harry Reinstein saved a life with an emergency tracheotomy with a flashlight in the patient’s room.

Sister DeSales’ first assignment in Jacksonville was brief but she returned in 1985. It was then that her ability to “integrate” their mission took on a whole new meaning. She began in the education department and blossomed from there.

“We must remember ‘integration’ means fitting something into something else,” says Sister DeSales. “That may be a very crude explanation, but we try to integrate our mission into the culture of the organization and we try to do it very sincerely at St. Vincent’s.”

Mary Alice Phelan, director of community relations for St. Vincent’s, said Sister DeSales has a great passion for promoting and educating the mission of St. Vincent’s.

“She has always made sure we stay rooted in our Catholic health care, she said. “We have a diverse employee base and we are respectful of all religions, but sister always remembers the critical part of St. Vincent’s is that we are Catholic health care.”

First there were voluntary classes for all interested associates at St. Vincent’s on subjects such as understanding the saints to assuring the mission of the Daughters of Charity and St. Vincent’s is upheld. Sister DeSales would eventually make those classes mandatory. Before you knew it, the mission statement was placed on every badge for all employees.

The actual St. Vincent’s mission statement reads: “Rooted in the loving ministry of Jesus the healer, we commit ourselves to serving all persons, with special attention to those who are poor and vulnerable. Our Catholic health ministry is dedicated to spiritually-centered holistic care, which sustains and improves the health of individuals and communities.”

“Yes, I think St. Vincent’s has been true to its mission,” says Sister DeSales - a mission she redefined. “We try to serve the vulnerable and those who do not have health insurance, and we do it in several ways.

In 1993, Sister DeSales established We Care Jacksonville - an organization of local clinics that offer care to the poor and uninsured. In the first four years alone, We Care provided health care to more than 100,000 Jacksonville children.

Also, there’s the I.M. Sulzbacher Health Center - where in 1995 Sister DeSales became involved with the goal to provide a health care clinic for the homeless population of Jacksonville. It now treats 1,300 patients a month.

If there’s a “crown jewel” of accomplishments at St. Vincent’s, it would be the Mobile Health Outreach Ministry, according to Sister DeSales.

“Nowadays, we can have lawn services, cleaning services and pet services come to you,” Sister DeSales observed. “Why not health care? It’s a great thing for the migrants, the people in the city and the schools.”

On this early December morning, just days before she’s scheduled to depart, Sister DeSales seems more comfortable not talking about how far St. Vincent’s has come but rather looking at how much further they can go. She glances over a sparkling sun on the St. Johns River where the hospital rests and turns toward the street entrance, where in front the lifelike bronze sculpture of four Daughters of Charity greets all who visit St. Vincent’s.

“When that was put up, I cried,” admits Sister DeSales, who explained the “Cornette” was worn by the Daughters of Charity until 1964 - a symbol of care of the poor since the congregation’s founding in 1633 by St. Louise de Merrilac in Paris.

“When I think of the sisters that served here, I remember the tremendous influence they had on our personnel and how that kindness and concern has permeated the walls of this organization,” she adds. “That deep respect for the sisters is still there. It’s the sisters’ dedication to health care and health care for the poor that drew that respect over the years.”

  In reading the inscription on the Daughters of Charity monument, it’s almost as if you are reading the biography of Sister DeSales.

The beautiful sculpture depicts the first sister contemplating the work of the mission. The second sister is praying for the success of the mission. The third sister is offering bread - a symbol of gifts to the poor in the community. The fourth sister is planting the seeds of the cultivation of friendships, partnerships and support from the community.

She’ll bring those same teachings back to Baltimore at St. Agnes where she says “the Lord has called her and where the Daughters of Charity need her.” But in looking in the rear view mirror, she can’t help but call Jacksonville home.

Now it’s her home away from home.

In part two of our series on St. Vincent’s, we’ll talk to hospital administrators about the business of health care.