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'The culture stays the same': Preparing for move, CUMC staff reflect on 40 years at 30th and California

Creighton President the Rev. Daniel S. Hendrickson, SJ, addresses staff of the soon-to-close CHI Health Creighton University Medical Center on May 22, 2017.Through the doors of a hospital pass many of the problems society faces, often writ large and urgently in blood and tears.

For the past 40 years at CHI Health Creighton University Medical Center, those problems have been met by a devoted, unwavering, faithful group of health care professionals and staff. Monday, May 22, more than 200 of those professionals and staff gathered for a farewell as CUMC prepares to shift operations to CHI Health CUMC-Bergan Mercy, June 1. Some hospital operations, including the pharmacy, have already shifted to CHI Health CUMC-University Campus at 24th and Cuming streets.

“Rooted in what is most noble and sacred in health care, the professionals here have done the harder things with no fanfare, but with quiet pride, a deep sense of mission, and a special kind of camaraderie and teamwork,” said the Rev. James Clifton, SJ, associate dean for mission, identity and diversity at the School of Medicine, as he led a reflection upon the impending closing of the building. “They have been blessed a hundred-fold by those they have served, and by those with whom they have served. And, they have trained and formed generations of talented and generous young men and women in the distinctive kind of healing of which we are so proud.”

Bergan Mercy will be the fourth different home of the institution now known as Creighton University Medical Center. The hospital started as St. Joseph’s Mercy Hospital in 1870 at 12th and Mason streets. In 1892, St. Joseph’s merged with a new 200-bed hospital funded by University founder John A. Creighton at 10th and Castelar streets, where it also became a teaching hospital for the newly opened Creighton School of Medicine.

As Creighton University President the Rev. Daniel S. Hendrickson, SJ, noted in his remarks, the present CUMC location was the largest private construction project in Nebraska when ground was broken on it in 1974.

"And since that time, so much has been accomplished within these walls," Fr. Hendrickson said. "The lives that began in this place, the final breaths taken here — all were accompanied by a loving and gracious touch by caring and dedicated health care professionals."

The hospital moved to 30th and California streets in late 1977, where Robert Recker, MD’63, remembers first opening his office door on New Year’s Eve.

“It’s a new location, but the culture stays the same,” said Recker, who joined the School of Medicine faculty in 1971 and remains a professor in the Department of Endocrinology and director of the Osteoporosis Research Center. “It’s a caring, loving culture that carries the social and religious connotations of this University. I think it’s an ideal model for a hospital to have that kind of an emphasis on the spiritual and religious. We’ve been fortunate to have the kind of people who make that culture a priority in giving care.”

The shining lights of that culture included several high-profile incidents to which CUMC personnel responded with compassion and aplomb — a high school bus crash in 2001, the Von Maur shooting in 2007, the Little Sioux tornado in 2008, and even two shootings that took place in the lobby of CUMC.

But as many people noted during the closing ceremonies, the little things that don’t make the headlines often prevailed in the hearts and minds of patients and people who worked here. There were shoes and clothes for homeless patients, meals for the hungry. A dying cancer patient without a family was treated to a special last Christmas.

“The compassion and the style of care has made it a very easy place to become a part of,” said Devin Fox, MD, a professor in the School of Medicine and vice president of medical operations for CHI Health. “Looking around at all of the people who have made this place what it has been over the past 40 years and longer, I can’t help but feel so grateful. The people here have made me the kind of physician I am.”

Just as it did 40 years ago with the move from South Omaha to North Omaha, the 2017 move inspires mixed feelings for those bidding adieux to a workplace they’ve come to recognize as a kind of home away from home.

In a hallway off the hospital’s main lobby is a memorial wall on which staff, patients and neighborhood supporters have written well wishes and recounted memories. Many of the messages are simple thank yous to medical professionals and hospital employees who helped at what can often be the most trying time in a person’s life.

Maureen Smithberg, residency coordinator for family medicine in the School of Medicine, said the 25 years she’s worked at CUMC have served as a daily reminder of all the brightest elements of humanity. “I’ve learned a lot,” Smithberg said.

“Just getting on the elevator here and encountering the diversity and the cultural gifts of the people who work here and the people who are served here, I’m grateful I have been given this privilege to live in this world. It’s a world outside my little box and it’s an education I would not trade it for anything.”

Rose Tselentis was an acute coronary care nurse who helped make the 1977 move from St. Joseph’s. She recalled an early morning when it became time for her department to shift its operations. Tselentis and another nurse had charge over two patients, still fragile from heart procedures.

“We’re thinking we’ll probably transport them in an ambulance but here comes one of those old army trucks with the canvas over the top of it,” said Tselentis, who, though retired, still works one day a week at the hospital. “And there’s no such thing as a battery-operated defibrillator back then. So what we did was, we loaded them up and we started praying. From South 10th Street until we got off the exit ramp to 30th Street, we prayed the whole time. And you know what? We made it. And we’ll make this move to. It’s only a building. The same spirit of serving the underserved is still in the hearts and minds of everyone here.”

Tuesday, May 23, CUMC will observe an opening ceremony at its new home at Bergan Mercy. The program begins at 10:30 a.m., followed by a picnic-style luncheon.

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