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Sister Peter Claver

Patron Saint for Spokane's Sick

By William Stimson

In an era when investors buy and sell hospitals like resort hotels, and executives of what is called "the medical industry" make six-figure salaries for delivering care to fewer and fewer people, it's interesting to recall that Spokane's greatest hospital executive was an unassuming nun who was paid $40 a month and sewed her own clothes.

Sister Peter Claver, who died in 1991, was a nurse with a Master's degree in hospital management when she was appointed administrator of Sacred Heart Hospital in 1964. She took over a Victorian building that was hopelessly outmoded for modern medicine.

By the time she retired in 1988, most of what is now Sacred Heart Medical Center had been built under her direction. Sacred Heart employment had grown from 900 to more than 3,000, making the hospital the second largest employer in Spokane after Kaiser Aluminum. The hospital had gained a national reputation for innovation and excellence in medical care.

Sister Peter Claver herself collected boxes full of awards and honorary degrees, which, those who knew her agree, only surprised her.

Since joining the Sisters of Providence at the age of 22, she had one interest in hospitals, helping people who were sick. She did this instinctively and emotionally, as one might rush to the aid of a person who collapsed on the street.

But a large institution offers lots of potential diversions from this simple purpose: careers, egos, schedules and so on. (And lately, profit. In 1985, when she was selected one of the nation's top women executives, Claver told a reporter: "I'm sure that for-profit hospitals have dedicated people working for them, but I find the practice of making money from sick people repugnant.")

She referred to the hospital budget as "the patients' money" and was notoriously frugal with it, always asking whether something could be repaired rather than replaced.

She would grill a room full of physicians along the same lines about a million-dollar piece of medical equipment. She wasn't easy to bluff, either, because she read the same technical data they did. Those who worked with her estimated she must have had a very high IQ, because she immersed herself in the details of everything connected with one of the most complex institutions. Frank Bouten of Bouten Construction, builders of the medical center, said he had never had client who understood construction better or paid more attention to technical detail than Claver.

Yet her secretary, Jay Staebell, believes Sister Peter Claver's most outstanding talent was negotiation. Time after time, doctors or other experts came to her office with grim faces and big requests, and left satisfied, whether they got what they wanted or not. "She could negotiate so they would feel they won."

When she got away from blueprints and out of the meetings, she roamed the halls of the hospital, chatting with nurses and patients, looking for glitches. One employee remembers being with Claver when she pulled on a door and found it stuck. Claver reached into the deep pockets of her nun's habit, pulled out a screwdriver and adjusted the lock.

From the time she awoke at 5 am and asked for guidance at Mass, she devoted every moment of the day looking for ways to make the hospital run better. C.F. Legel, her finance officer, remembers she would personally attend tests of the emergency transformers that took over when hospital power went out. When the test worked, she would smile with satisfaction.

The hospital was her life "pretty much 24/7," says her lifelong friend and colleague, Sister Michelle Holland. Claver was at the hospital 12 hours a day. On evenings and weekends, she read medical literature she needed to master. Even when asleep she wasn't off duty, says Holland. "In the middle of the night, she'd hear if the transformer went off. The other sisters would sleep through it."

This devotion gave Peter Claver a great moral authority and self-assurance. In his homily at her funeral mass, Gonzaga University President Bernard Coughlin, S.J., told a typical story about the seemingly quiet nun. Claver and her chief hospital assistants went to Olympia to have dinner with Spokane area legislators to discuss the hospital's legislative problems. After dinner, one of the legislators rose and said he must hurry off.

Sister said, "Well, you know we've traveled a long way to talk with you, and I'd like to share a few more comments with you. Please sit down." And he did.

Coughlin was careful to caution this could only be part of the myth by adding, "as the story goes."

Was that likely? Did that sound like Claver? Her colleagues say it did. "She would have said it very nicely," says Sister Dorothy Byrne, who knew Claver since they were both young nurses. But, yes, the authority and conviction in the story were typical of Peter Claver.

"I can confirm it," says C.F. Legel, Claver's chief financial officer. "I was there." Legel says the legislator - "I won't say who it was" - sat down and listened.

The story has a certain symbolic value at the present moment. Almost everyone involved in the current crisis of hospitals agrees that government has not played its proper role. It tells people they have access to medical treatment, but it does not provide the funding.

But who in the medical field, as it is currently structured, has the moral authority to tell legislators to sit down and listen?

William Stimson is the author of Spokane: A View of the Falls.

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