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Santa Cruz, California – Next year will mark the 75th anniversary of the arrival of the Michigan-based Adrian Dominican Sisters in Santa Cruz. The legacy of good care and good will that was started at Sisters Hospital on West Cliff in 1941 remains strong today among the seven sisters on staff at Dignity Health Dominican Hospital.

Along with providing support and leadership roles at the hospital, each of the Sisters participates in projects out in the community that furthers the general health and well-being of Santa Cruz County.

Sister Rita Eileen Dean, OP, Vice President of Sponsorship, says of the Dominican Sisters at the hospital: "They take on these different challenges because each one has a passion for the particular chosen area of community life that can use a helping hand."

Health Fair Faithful

Since the advent of free community health fairs more than five years ago, Sister Rita has served at the registration table and as a greeter at every fair. "Meeting our guests, putting them at ease, and helping them get the most out of the health fairs are important to the fairs' success, and something that enriches me, too," says Sister Rita. 

Currently, Dignity Health Dominican, along with Dignity Health Dominican Medical Group and Physicians Medical Group of Santa Cruz County, host two fairs annually, a Women's Health and Lifestyle Expo in the spring and a Senior Health Fair in fall. Each fair can bring over 400 participants. "We are honored to be able to offer these fairs to the community, and I am honored to have been a part of each," Sister Rita adds.

When Clothes Are an Emergency

Sister Beth Butler, OP, staffs the desk in the hospital's main lobby and in the Emergency Department as needed, and always keeps an eye out for ways to help others. She names nine projects she has a hand in, and often is able to reuse or repurpose items donated to her to serve those less fortunate.

Between 200 and 300 patients a year benefit from Sister Beth's "clothes closet" in the Emergency Department. "It's a basic human need to be clothed, and some of our emergency patients, because of homelessness or the traumatic circumstances that brought them to us, may have next to nothing to wear when they leave," says Sister Beth. 

The closet relies on donations of like-new clothes, shoes and hats from hospital staff. "Everybody is always so grateful to look decent and feel decent when they leave the ED," she says.

At Thanksgiving, Sister Beth rallies staff to donate gently-used warm jackets, which are delivered to the homeless services complex on Coral Street. At Christmas, she organizes "Count Your Blessings," during which hospital staff buy gifts for families chosen by the Head Start program. 

Health Care on the Road

Sister Michaella Siplak reaches out to patients through the Mobile Wellness Clinic.

The vividly decorated Mobile Wellness Center, under the supervision of Sister Michaella Siplak, OP, is becoming more widely known in the community as it finishes its third year. A registered nurse, Sister Michaella, in her more than 45 years at Dominican hospitals in Santa Cruz, has served in many hospital roles including nursing department director and vice president of nursing.  

"When we take the mobile center out in the community, we typically see the same conditions in our patients that are most commonly seen in the emergency department: hypertension, uncontrolled diabetes, and respiratory problems. Our mobile center staff is able to help and keep those people from needing that trip to the ER."   

Hands-on care of the citizenry with the mobile clinic is in keeping with Sister Michaella's personal commitment to serving those most in need. For 20 years Sister Michaella has been on the team staffing the RotaCare clinic in Live Oak one night a week. Volunteer health care professionals treat about 15 people each time without regard for their insurance status or ability to pay.

Next Generation of Health Professionals

Sister Adrienne Piennette coordinates Dominican Hospital’s internship program.

With her background in education, including a stint as principal at Holy Cross School in Santa Cruz, Sister Adrienne Piennette, OP, seems the perfect fit as the coordinator of a Dominican internship program in partnership with Cabrillo College. 

Most days, Sister Adrienne works in volunteer services at Dominican, but on Fridays she orchestrates the Cabrillo Health Academy for about 10 students on track to have careers in health care. Each week, a different hospital expert presents a seminar on pertinent topics ranging from hospice to critical care to radiology. Each student prior to the health academy has completed prerequisite courses at Cabrillo and also will volunteer 120 hours at the hospital during the term. 

Sister Adrienne says that the academy appeals to reentry students who may be a bit older and of diverse backgrounds. Three students in last year's program are pursuing coursework to further their goals in health care, she reports, and every student who completes the academy is granted a $3,000 scholarship for further studies, compliments of the Dominican Medical Staff's Pteron Society. 

Earth Is Always the Patient, too

Sister Mary Ellen Leciejewski, OP, has personified Dominican's and Dignity Health's ecology efforts for more than 15 years and is widely known for making sure those in health care keep Earth's health a priority as they pursue the practice of modern medicine.  

While every initiative on her task list touches the community -- for example, she is currently cataloging the chemical footprints that various hospital vendors create -- she is best known in the community as one of the originators and faithful caretakers of the organic garden at the hospital campus. "We planted the first raised beds in April 2004, and we continue to grow," says Sister Mary Ellen. "We are a certified organic garden."

Strawberries, pumpkins, kale, beets, hot peppers, tomatoes, zucchini, basil, sunflowers and beans join a recently expanded orchard of 15 trees in the garden this fall. Of course, everything is watered via stingy drip irrigation. 

Making Health Wishes Known

In 1990, Advance Directive for Health Care appeared in health care jargon when Congress created formal pathways to ensure patients could make informed decisions about their care, particularly at the end of life. Sister Veronica Kelley, OP, a registered nurse in Dominican's family birthing center for many years and the manager of the patient relations department at the time Advance Directives were introduced, began an educational program for the community in 1991 that continues today.

Sister Veronica's seminars are scheduled in the hospital's Education Center via the community health and wellness program about three times a year. 

"This outreach fits our mission to provide our patients with dignity in healthcare, including at the end of life," says Sister Veronica. "Too often I've seen the grief and heartache that can result when people haven't made their wishes known in advance. Pain can be such a overarching concern and we do everything we can to honor our patients' wishes during their stay."

Food Is Mission at Core

On the last Thursday of the month, a dedicated band of volunteers led by Sister Judy Silva, OP, serves dinner to homeless men and women at Our Lady Star of the Sea Church on Frederick Street in Santa Cruz. Children and pets are often welcomed along with their adults, too.

By day, Sister Judy is a member of the hospitality services team and is at the hospital at 5 a.m. to greet those arriving for early scheduled procedures.

As they have done since last April, dinner volunteers prepare the food at home and bring it to the church, where the most recent gathering found some 25 people enjoying the home-cooked dishes. On each dinner evening, the church hall also becomes an extemporaneous dormitory as those without a home can spend the night in its safe and sober environment. In the morning, guests are served homemade muffins, fruit, and cereal for breakfast, and everyone gets a sandwich to take with him or her.

Sister Judy says feeding the homeless is fulfilling her mission to serve at a most basic level. "I believe I must do it," she says. "They say the best way to meet Jesus face to face is to meet and welcome strangers in your life."

Feature photo: Adrian Dominican Sisters who serve at Dominican Hospital include: standing, from left, Sisters Rita Eileen Dean, Maureen Keeler, and Judy Silva, and, seated, from left; Sisters Mary Ellen Leciejewski, Veronica Kelley, and Beth Butler.


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