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After 150 years, aim of St. Joseph hospital in Towson is still compassionate care

When Sister Evelyn Grudza came to Baltimore 55 years ago, there were 45 women from her order living in the St. Clare convent adjacent to St. Joseph Hospital in Towson who staffed the hospital, she said, from the chief executive officer to the nurse manager to nutritionists to housekeepers.

No Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia live on campus today and there are only five sisters, including Grudza, who work at what is now known as the University of Maryland St. Joseph Medical Center. But Grudza, who volunteers in the hospital's Spiritual Care Department and oversees 55 other volunteers, said it is more critical than ever to bring a "presence" of the three Franciscan sisters who founded the hospital in East Baltimore 150 years ago.

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"The continuity is important," Grudza said "Our job is to be among the people and to encourage them and then to move on. It's not ours to begin with — it's shared."

"It's very rewarding," she said.

The 238-bed Catholic acute-care hospital located on Osler Drive in the heart of Towson which provides primary care as well as specialized cancer, heart and orthopedic needs, is celebrating its 150th anniversary this year.

The hospital was opened in 1864 as St. Joseph's German Catholic Hospital by three Franciscan nuns in three donated row houses on East Caroline Street to serve German immigrants. The hospital tended to 50 patients in its first year and expanded its outreach to other communities. In 1965, the hospital relocated to where it is today on Osler Drive. And from 1901 when the hospital launched a nursing program it graduated 2,100 nurses until the school closed in 1988.

Grudza said there are several of those graduates still working at the hospital, some with as many as 45 years of experience.

Grudza herself has been at the hospital since 1993. She calls herself a "recycled nun" because of her many jobs over the years. She taught and was principal of a Catholic day school. She worked for the Archdiocese of Baltimore.

She spent 15 years on staff as a certified chaplain in the Spiritual Care Department at St. Joseph. She retired as chaplain six years ago. "I basically do the same thing I did before," said Grudza, who said she will be marking 60 years as a Franciscan nun in 2015.

Grudza lives with another Franciscan sister in a house in Towson from where she often spends the days she is not at the hospital on the telephone and computer, scheduling volunteers for the three daily prayer services who also visit with patients and their families.

"Sometimes, just to be present is comforting to them," she said.

Ups and downs through the years

On a sunny weekday morning at the Towson hospital, the lobby of the main hospital building was a busy place. Cars and taxis pulled up to the sliding front doors. Patients and their families were directed to the appropriate departments. Visitors sat in clusters of chairs set up along the main hallway.

One level up, the cafeteria was quieter, just a few people sipped coffee before the lunch crowd arrived. Sitting at a table, Grudza was dressed in a plain blouse and skirt.

Over the years, she's seen a lot of changes, from the hiring of the first lay CEO to the larger Catholic Health Initiative taking over the nun-run health care system. But like her own role at the hospital, one aspect remains the same.

"The atmosphere hasn't changed," Grudza said. "We continue to be a Catholic hospital, and the emphasis is on compassionate care."

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Francis X. Kelly Jr. would agree. Kelly, a former state senator and chairman of the Board of Directors at St. Joseph, is passionate about the place.

"I get emotional," said Kelly, of Lutherville, chairman and co-founder of Kelly & Associates, an insurance company in Hunt Valley. He cheerfully admitted to "crying three times during a four-minute speech" at a hospital gala in September.

"You have doctors who want to practice there. You have patients who want to go there," Kelly said. "I get calls every week from people raving about St. Joseph's."

But the scenario at the Towson institution wasn't always so rosy. Two years ago, Kelly said, "the hospital faced difficult challenges. It was close to going down."

He referred to lawsuits against the hospital alleging that hospital cardiologist Dr. Mark Midei put hundreds of patients through unnecessary heart stent procedures. In April, after a four-year-legal battle, the hospital's former owner agreed to pay up to $37 million to resolve the claims. Midei, a star physician at the hospital, eventually lost his license.

Under terms of the settlement, Catholic Health Initiatives, which owned the hospital when the alleged problems occurred, did not admit to any wrongdoing. Midei was not named as a defendant in those lawsuits.

St. Joseph Medical Center was acquired in 2012 by the University of Maryland Medical System, which did not take on any liabilities arising from the lawsuits.

UMMS was interested in St. Joseph for a variety of reasons, including geographic proximity to an existing market presence, the opportunity to enter a new market and the opportunity to expand clinical services, according to UMMS spokeswoman Karen Lancaster. Throughout the process, though, a critical consideration was retaining St. Joseph's Catholic identify and healing ministry, Lancaster said in an email.

Kelly sounded like he couldn't be happier with the way things turned out. By joining UMMS, a $3.5 billion private not-for-profit entity, St. Joseph became part of a financially strong system and gained synergy as well, he said.

Despite the ups and downs, one aspect of St. Joseph has remained constant: the emphasis on compassionate care, said Kelly, echoing Grudza's sentiment.

"It is a faith-based institution," Kelly said, of St. Joseph. "It's an attitude. When you're there, you feel the love."

"Health care continues to be complex, but at its essence it will always be defined at the bedside by our ability to provide loving service and compassionate care as the founding Sisters instilled in us 150 years ago and that will continue well into the future," Mohan Suntha, St. Joseph president and CEO, said in a statement.

Baltimore County Councilman David Marks, who represents Towson, has a personal connection to St. Joseph's. He was born there.

"It is not only a major employer but one of three key medical institutions that define Towson," he said of St. Joseph, with the other two being Greater Baltimore Medical Center and Sheppard Pratt Health System.

"It helps put Towson on the map," Marks said.

'Comfort of prayer'

Hospital volunteer Ed Fritsche is often found at the front desk in the main lobby. Ed likes to escort people to their destinations.

"They're not excited to be here. They're a little upset, so I like to walk them to where they're supposed to go," said Ed, 72, a retired mainframe systems manager who, with his wife Mary Kay Fritsche, has been volunteering at St. Joseph for over a decade. The pair are Towson residents.

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Mary Kay, 71, a retired nurse, volunteers in the Cancer Treatment Center, an outpatient unit primarily for chemotherapy. The center can get exceptionally busy, she said.

"A lot of it is comfort care," Mary Kay said, like "bringing drinks, blankets and snacks and answering questions, especially with new patients."

Ed said the couple chose to volunteer at St. Joseph because both have been patients there.

"We are fortunate to have the hospital in our lives," he said. "We wanted to give back."

Grudza said volunteers help to keep "the mission of St. Francis alive" by bringing "comfort of prayer and the presence of God to the patient in that room. And if they aren't Catholic — to bring prayer and a blessing."

Grudza said she believes that many people come to University of Maryland St. Joseph Medical Center because "we are a Catholic hospital."

"I think they leave with a hopefulness and deepening of their faith," she said, "and the sense that God is with them in their pain and suffering — and their recovery."

Elizabeth Eck contributed to this story.

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