Q & A with Sr. Jomary Trstensky, award-winner for decades of health care work

Hospital Sisters of St. Francis Sr. Jomary Trstensky (Courtesy of Catholic Health Association)

Hospital Sisters of St. Francis Sr. Jomary Trstensky started her career in Catholic health care more than 50 years ago as a nurse.

In June, she was a recipient of a Catholic Health Association Lifetime Achievement Award for inspiring her colleagues to live the values and mission of the Hospital Sisters and Catholic Church.

In between, she served as the provincial superior of the American Province of the Hospital Sisters of St. Francis; was the assistant administrator at St. Vincent Hospital in Green Bay, Wisconsin; was a nurse in several of the congregation's hospitals; was on the provincial leadership team; was executive vice president and, later, president of the Hospital Sisters Health System; and is currently the chairperson of the Hospital Sisters Ministries Board, which is the public juridic person who sponsors HSHS.

"Public juridic person" is a canon law term for an entity recognized under church law and is the church equivalent of a civil corporation. Making the health system a separate entity will ensure its continuation into the future. There are currently 67 Hospital Sisters of St. Francis in the United States.

In the 1960s, Trstensky was chosen for the surgical team that performed the first open-heart surgery in Springfield, Illinois. Later, she would play a key role in creating the Prairie Heart Institute in Springfield, a world-class heart surgery program.

Hospital Sisters Health System grew under Trstensky's leadership to 14 hospitals and nearly 200 integrated clinics with more than 14,000 employees. She also helped grow St. John's College of Nursing and initiated the creation of Hospital Sisters Mission Outreach, which has collected and distributed more than $60 million worth of usable medical equipment and supplies to hospitals and clinics in 87 countries since its founding in 2002.

Trstensky, 79, has also been active in the Haitian Health Foundation, which helps more than 200,000 people in Haiti with nutrition, public health, housing, and maternity and education services. She has served as a board member for the Catholic Health Association; the Illinois and Wisconsin Catholic Health Associations; Catholic Charities of the Springfield, Illinois, Diocese; and Consorta Inc.

The other recipients of the Lifetime Achievement Award this year were Dominican Sr. Mary Dorothea Sondgeroth, associate executive director of the St. Dominic Health Services Foundation in Jackson, Mississippi, and John J. Finan Jr., president and chief executive officer of Franciscan Missionaries of Our Lady Health System in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

GSR: Reading over the highlights of your career, I have to ask: Is there anything you haven't done?

Trstensky: One of the things I didn't get to do was to be a hands-on caregiver for very long. Most nurses hope to be the hands at the bedside and serve very directly. In fact, in our congregation, that was one of our hallmarks: We were caregivers, not managers.

I got to do it for a few years, and I was blessed, but I was very quickly moved to positions where I was working through the hands of other people.

Leadership is not just telling people what to do. There are upward roles, where you make budgets and set policies, and downward roles, where you help those who do the hands-on work. We don't like those terms because we don't want to say some people are higher than others, but the reality is there are different roles in an organization, and some of those roles facilitate the good works of other people.

In leadership, there's a lot of "business," the things that make the world go 'round, like budgets, but there's also a lot of people work: networking, collaboration, participating in other organizations' efforts. If we're successful, then all the people working in our organization are able to serve people very effectively.

Health care has changed a lot over the years, and a lot of decisions that may be good business decisions have not been very good for people.

I've been blessed to work in an organization predisposed to care for needy people. There are people who need our services and can't get those services easily, so it's our job to find ways to get to them and help them get what they need.

We've had the privilege for over 130 years of representing the church in our marketplaces in regard to Catholic health care. We have been the arm of the church doing that.

The decision to move the congregation's health system from a direct ministry to a separate entity will ensure it continues long after the sisters are gone, but it couldn't have been an easy decision.

Our sisters began preparing close to 40 years ago for an enhanced role of the laity. We did it systematically and deliberately. We didn't do it immediately. We went very slowly and made sure each layer of our organization was significantly strong to carry on on its own. We didn't begin with the public juridic person, we ended with it [in 2015].

Sr. Jomary Trstensky, left, accepts the Catholic Health Association Lifetime Achievement award from CHA president and CEO Daughter of Charity Sr. Carol Keehan, with Rodney Hochman, new CHA board chair, at right during the 2017 Catholic Health Assembly. (Courtesy of Catholic Health Assocation / Jerry Naunheim Photography)

Our health care ministry was for the most part founded by our own sisters. We acquired a few hospitals, but most of our hospitals were ones we started. We kept a very close hand on things. But because we took so much time and had such a deliberate process, by the time we did [convert to a separate entity], it felt like the completion of something very good and the beginning of something very good. There was some satisfaction in having brought it to this point, and of course, we didn't divorce ourselves from it entirely, though our role is now minor.

I've been in leadership in the clinical realm, in the business realm and also in the religious institute, and in all instances, there is a sacred responsibility to enable what you're doing to continue into the future, for whatever the future calls for.

Do you still see the Holy Spirit working through your ministry?

Every day. I could say this 40 years ago, I can say it today. Many of these things are the hands of God, they're really not Sister Jomary or anyone else. God depends on us to make things happen. We are God's representatives here on Earth.

You couldn't care for the sick without seeing the hand of God. Sometimes it's a little more of a stretch to see it in the business office, but it's there. In Catholic health care, we work very hard to ensure the boardroom is not just a place of business.

In some of our rural hospitals, people would look at the situation and say, "Why do you stay there?" We stay because we see the need.

[Dan Stockman is national correspondent for Global Sisters Report. His email address is dstockman@ncronline.org. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.]