Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Looking Back...Haitian Hearts Skips a Beat

Peoria Journal Star
January 3, 2002

Phil Luciano

Haitian Hearts skips beat

Haitian Hearts still beats, but time will tell how long or how strong.

Its founder, Dr. John Carroll, was fired by OSF Saint Francis Medical Center last month. Since then, this newspaper has been deluged by calls and letters, most of them confused about the future of Haitian Hearts.

The official line from St. Francis: The hospital will keep donating its services.

But Dr. Carroll says he has been told St. Francis will stop assisting Haitian Hearts as early as this year - a move that would greatly reduce the number of children the group saves.

''The last thing we'd like to see is the demise of Haitian Hearts,'' says Carroll, 48.

Before we get to the nittygritty, let me make a disclosure: I've known Carroll for years and have worked with him at medical missions in Haiti. I'd consider him a friend, though I see him at most maybe three times a year.

I don't aim to vindicate John Carroll. I honestly have no idea why he was canned from St. Francis after 21 years in the emergency room. Maybe he doesn't brush his teeth enough, or he wears bunny slippers. But he did nothing nefarious: His termination had something to do with professional differences between Carroll and hospital poo-bahs.

The hospital refuses to discuss personnel matters, and Carroll won't talk about his firing. He doesn't want to burn any bridges that remain between St. Francis and Haitian Hearts, which he started in 1995.

Years before, Carroll had begun making medical missions to Haiti, the poorest county in the Western Hemisphere, where medical care is almost nonexistent for 95 percent of the population. During his visits, Carroll would examine children with severe ailments, many of them heart-related, that are treatable in the United States but fatal in Haiti.

Carroll began to bring back one or two kids a year, beg his cardiac colleagues for help and lean on St. Francis for assistance. Carroll began spending six months a year at Haitian medical clinics, and he'd find more and more kids with bum tickers.

St. Francis donates bed space, nurses and other services; it won't reveal the worth of its donations, but Carroll estimates the figure at about $257,000 a year. Cardiac surgeons and other specialists donate their time. Carroll himself covers many extraneous costs, such as air fare.

But those donations don't cover everything. Haitian Hearts treats about 10 children a year, at an average of $25,000 per hospital stay. However, complications can prompt overruns; one lad needed some $750,00 worth of care before returning to Haiti.

So Carroll created Haitian Hearts to help raise money. It's part of St. Francis's Children's Hospital of Illinois. Over the past three years, Haitian Hearts has raised nearly $600,000, with about $275,000 pledged for this year.

So what's the problem?

Lately, this newspaper's letters-to-the-editor have railed against Carroll's dismissal. Some question whether Haitian Hearts can survive.

Chris Lofgren, spokesman for St. Francis, wants people to understand that the hospital hired Carroll as an ER doctor, not as administrator of Haitian Hearts. The group is independent of the hospital, he says.

Carroll's termination had nothing to do with Haitian Hearts, Lofgren says. Further, he says, the hospital will continue to support the program as it has in the past, regardless of Carroll's firing.

''John's leaving (St. Francis) really doesn't change Haitian Hearts at all,'' Lofgren.

Not so, says Carroll. Though he won't talk about the explicit reason behind his termination, he says St. Francis CEO Keith Steffen wanted him to somehow change his ways.

''Haitian Hearts was held over my head by Keith Steffen,'' Carroll says. ''The implication was, Haitian Hearts would survive if I survived (at St. Franics).''

Hospital spokesman Lofgren says Steffen never tied Carroll's job to the future of Haitian Hearts. Yet Carroll says that after he was fired, St. Francis sources told him Haitian Hearts funding would be discontinued - part of a hospitalwide cost-cutting measure to offset expected decreases in Medicaid and Medicare reimbursements.

If that were to happen, Haitian Hearts could continue, but at half-power or less. But that only takes into account dollars and cents.

Without his half-time job at St. Francis, Carroll cannot afford to spend half a year in Haiti. That means not only will he encounter fewer children, but he will have less time to wade through the quagmire of Haitian bureaucracy. Visas can take upwards of a year to procure, and that's only with a Haiti-savvy guy like Carroll greasing the wheels.

Plus, without a job, Carroll could have a harder time prompting donations. Potential contributors might be skittish about writing a check to Haitian Hearts when its lead physician isn't employed.

Carroll, along with the Haitian Hearts board of directors, plan to push forward - business as usual. Upwards of 10 Haitian kids are scheduled to come to St. Francis in the next couple of months, and Carroll says everything is in place for their treatment.

After that, who knows? But Carroll (who leaves this week for another monthlong clinic in Haiti) remains optimistic.

''If we can do only one children a year instead of 10, one is better than none,'' he says.

* Write Phil Luciano at 1 News Plaza, Peoria, IL 61643, or call 686-3155 or (800) 225-5757, Ext. 3155. E-mail him at pluciano@pjstar.com.

My comments today, February 18, 2009:

1. As Phil accurately wrote, the future of Haitian Hearts was up in the air in early January, 2002. I don't think he believed Chris Lofgren or Keith Steffen either. And Mr. Steffen did indicate to me that Haitian Hearts at OSF depended on me being employed at OSF. And even if Mr. Steffen didn't fire me in December, 2001, he was telling others that Haitian Hearts days were numbered.

2. I sure did not want to be fired from OSF. I loved the place. Taking care of patients and teaching UICOMP medical students and resident physicians was fun. Also, some residents from UICOMP and other students and medical students from other medical centers in the U.S. travelled with me to Haiti and worked in the Haitian clinics and hospitals. It was a great experience for them and for me.

Also, working with Haitian Hearts host families in the Peoria area was a superb experience. We went through many tough times together when Haitian children had setbacks with surgery...but we went through it together, and usually everything worked out fine. At times, the local host family would travel back to Haiti with the child after recovery from surgery and present them to their Haitian mother. There are no words to express this situation.

However, the more I talked with Mr. Steffen and Dr. Hevesy, I could see that OSF was headed down the wrong path regarding the Emergency Department, intimidation of OSF employees, conflict of interest, general "administrative malaise" (described by a Monsignor in the Diocese), and lack of respect for the Ethical and Religious Directives that guide Catholic health care. Dr. David Gorenz, who is President of District 150 School Board, and Sue Wozniak, CFO at OSF-SFMC, even entered a meeting I was having with Sister Canisia through a side door from Mr. Steffen's office. I had not invited them. Their main goal was to sabotage my only meeting with 87 year old Sister Cansisia.

All in all, I thought it was time to let OSF fire me if that is what they wanted. Phil Luciano of course did not know what was happening in Mr. Steffen's office. He had no idea of what Mr. Steffen was saying to me or how bizarre he was acting.

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