Catholic hospitals take stock following shooting at Mercy

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Wednesday, December 5, 2018

The crime scene at Mercy Hospital and Medial Center in Chicago is seen Nov. 19 following a shooting. (CNS photo/Quinn Harris, USA TODAY Sports via Reuters)

The morning after a gunman killed a doctor, a pharmacy resident and a Chicago police officer at Mercy Hospital and Medical Center, more than 300 members of the hospital staff gathered for a Mass celebrated by Bishop Joseph Perry.

Pastoral care staff and counselors working with the employee assistance program checked in with employees who were not at work the following day, and met one-on-one and in groups with those who were, said John Hardt, regional vice president for mission integration for Trinity Health Illinois, which owns Mercy Hospital.

Trinity is one of the largest Catholic healthcare systems in the United States, with 94 hospitals and more than 100 other facilities. In the Chicago area, it operates Mercy and Loyola Medicine.

“A lot of people who were there were given the day off,” Hardt said. “But we didn’t want to go a day without being in touch with them.”

Members of the pastoral care staff also took time to bless each area of the hospital, especially those that were scenes of violence on Nov. 19.

That day, emergency room doctor Tamara O’Neal was confronted in the parking lot by her former fiancé, Juan Lopez. Lopez shot her to death, then entered the hospital and killed pharmacy resident Dayna Less, who stepped off an elevator into the shooting. Chicago Police Office Samuel Jimenez pursued Lopez into the building and was also shot and killed.

Lopez died after being shot by police and shooting himself.

Now the hospital community is trying to find its way forward, Hardt said.

“We’re learning as we go,” Hardt said, adding that the hospital has gotten support not only from Trinity Health institutions but the wider medical community in Chicago as well as the archdiocese.

In the days after the shooting, all of the Trinity hospitals around the country paused for a moment of silence at the time of the shooting.

Meanwhile, the pastoral care staff is still reaching out to staff and patients, especially those who were in Mercy Hospital that day.

“That work is ongoing, and I imagine it will be in the weeks and months to come,” Hardt said. “As you can imagine, the hunger is for some kind of understanding, an attempt to make sense of what happened. But these kinds of encounters with violence and evil defy understanding. It’s part of what makes them evil — they are outside the rational order of things. You can’t offer explanations. What you can offer is presence and accompaniment.”

Clifton Saper, a clinical psychologist who is associate vice president for behavioral and medical clinical integration within Amita Health, said that hospitals must make sure their staff members feel safe doing their jobs. Amita Health is a network of 19 Catholic and Adventist hospitals in Illinois.

“How do you give the message that we are taking care of them and are concerned about their safety?” Saper said. “When something like this happens, people are thinking, ‘Oh my God, that could happen here.’ They get anxious, and then a lot of the time, they beat themselves up for that anxiety.”

To help staff recover after traumatic incidents, Saper said, Amita has a plan in place for teams from the pastoral care departments to work with the affected people and help them recognize that their reactions are normal and that they can get through them.

“It’s normal to be shaken up when something like this happens,” Saper said. “But you still have to come to work the next day. To do that, you need to be aware of your emotions and feelings.”

Such incidents most often aren’t the kind of thing that makes the news. It could be a violent patient who had to be restrained, for example, or a patient who was expected to recover but died unexpectedly, or a colleague who got hurt at work.

Saper works out of the Amita Alexian Brothers Behavioral Health Hospital in Hoffman Estates. Unlike most medical hospitals, its doors are kept locked and patients are not allowed to bring anything in with them. That’s for the safety of the patients as well as the staff, Saper said, adding that it’s important to note that people with mental illness are less likely to be violent than the general population.

“But now we have these incidents that start in the parking lot,” he said. “We teach the run-hide-fight protocol when there is a violent incident, but you have to be careful where you run.”

All staff members in Sinai Health System, which operates Mount Sinai Hospital, 1500 S. Fairfield Ave., and Holy Cross Hospital, 6701 W. 68th St., receive training to respond to violent incidents as part of their orientation when they are first hired, said Ray Martinez, director of security for Sinai Health System. That training, which is tailored to each person’s job and work environment, is repeated every year.

Meanwhile, the system recently finished its own risk assessment, and is reconfiguring the emergency department at Holy Cross to have only one entrance and exit. Patients and visitors who come to the emergency department will have to pass through a metal detector if they can walk; those who arrive in wheelchairs or on gurneys will be scanned with a hand-held device, Martinez said.

Security officers have received customer service training to greet people in a friendly manner and inform them that the measures are intended to increase everyone’s safety, he said.

Those measures were already under way before the shooting at Mercy, but “we’ve sort of put them on the front burner,” Martinez said.

Staff members who need support after an incident can turn to counselors from Sinai’s behavioral health department or the pastoral care staff, said Michele Mazurek, vice president for patient care services and chief nursing officer for Sinai’s two acute care hospitals.

After the shooting at Mercy Hospital, nursing staff at Holy Cross and Mount Sinai were more concerned about their peers at Mercy than their own welfare, Mazurek said. She delivered cards and letters — as well as food — from the Sinai staff to Mercy’s emergency department two days after the shooting.

Patrick Cacchione, executive director of the Illinois Catholic Health Association, said he was among the people who reached out to Mercy Hospital in the hours after the shooting.

The hospital had completed an armed intruder simulation only a week or 10 days before the incident, and Cacchione said he was told that Mercy staff reacted quickly to protect themselves and their patients, keeping number of people hurt much lower than it could have been.

Hospitals in Illinois will be subject to a new law Jan. 1 calling on them to assess security risks following a 2017 incident at Delnor Hospital in Geneva, Illinois, when a patient in custody managed to take a guard’s gun and hold two nurses hostage.

Most hospitals assess such risks on an ongoing basis, said Melissa Granato, associate vice president of security for Amita Health. Amita hospitals will check their procedures to make sure they are in compliance with the new law.

Hospital campuses tend to be large, with a lot of public access and lots of employees doing different kids of work, she said. Security systems include surveillance systems, access control and in some cases panic response systems.

“We try to make sure everyone is as safe as is reasonable,” Granato said.

But the fact is, not every incident can be prevented, she said, so it’s just as important to train staff to respond using the familiar run-hide-fight protocol, which says to run from an armed intruder if possible, hide if you can’t run and fight as a last resort.

Cacchione said he is at a loss when it comes to trying to figure out how to prevent such incidents.

“It’s not just hospitals,” he said. “It goes deeper into our nation’s psyche. It happens at movie theaters, concerts. … It’s pervasive throughout society.”


  • gun violence
  • catholic hospitals

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