Sister Miriam Walsh
Laguna Honda’s Torchbearer,
Sister Miriam Walsh
Sister Miriam Walsh, beloved friend, and Laguna Honda Hospital’s Director of Pastoral Care for nearly 30 years, passed away December 3, 2009 in Baltimore, Maryland following an extended illness. She was 82.
Sister Miriam, affiliated with the Mission Helpers of the Sacred Heart, began her service to elderly and disabled residents of Laguna Honda Hospital in 1981. Generations of residents at Laguna Honda and their families were comforted by Sister Miriam’s service, faith, dedication, and her feisty spirit. As she said at the time of her retirement in December 2008, she knew she had found her calling to provide pastoral care services when she first began volunteering at Laguna Honda 27 years earlier.
A Laguna Honda resident submitted Sister’s name to the 1996 Olympic Torch
Relay Committee nominating her as someone who had given generously
to the community. Sister Miriam was chosen to help carry the 1996 Olympic
torch through the streets of San Francisco. At almost 70 years
old, she saw herself as “no spring chicken,” but was tickled that no one
was able to keep up with her as she carried the torch for two City blocks.
My hunch is that her dedication to spiritual service gave her extra adrenaline
to shine while carrying the Olympic torch (see the Fall 2003
issue of the Magazine
of Mission Helpers of the Sacred Heart).
In 1999, Sister Miriam worked tirelessly with the Laguna Honda First campaign to gain passage of the general obligation bond measure authorizing the rebuild of her beloved Laguna Honda Hospital. She considered the authorization to rebuild Laguna Honda as a highlight of her career providing help to the elderly at LHH for even more decades to come.
Sister Miriam believed fiercely that our society has a special obligation to care for the elderly and disabled. In December 2005, she published “We Won’t Abandon our ‘Old Friends’ ” in the San Francisco Archdiocese’s newsletter, Catholic San Francisco, quoting Pope John Paul II’s Lenten message that “the care of the elderly, above all when they pass through difficult moments, must be of great concern to the faithful.” Sister Miriam had already made that her life mission, and she was deeply moved when the Pope declared caring for the elderly an ethical priority.
Just as tirelessly, Sister Miriam was a founding member of San Franciscans for Laguna Honda, a committee that placed Proposition D on the June 2006 ballot to create a special use district to protect vulnerable San Franciscans at Laguna Honda following the disastrous 2004–2005 so-called “flow project,” which caused massive displacement of the frail elderly out of Laguna Honda to create psychosocial programming space for younger, disruptive, and dangerous San Francisco General Hospital patients.
Just after Laguna Honda’s former Executive Administrator, John Kanaley,
was appointed in 2004, he summoned Sister Miriam to his office
to discuss her advocacy against the flow project. I remember the Irish
twinkle in her eye — for which she was famous — when she relayed to me
the story of her first meeting with Kanaley. “What did Mr. Kanaley want?”
I asked her. She replied, grinning ear to ear, “He wanted me to agree
to a deal to keep Laguna Honda’s name out of the media and wanted me to
pipe down. I told him, ‘No deal,’ and that was the end of the meeting.”
Sister Miriam was never intimidated by the “powers that be.”
During the decade that I was privileged to be her co-worker at Laguna Honda, she taught me that the appropriate response to injustice is to actively resist by trying to change, and not accept, the political and social environments, inaction is never an appropriate response.
In 2008, Sister published “Dying Patients Lose Spiritual Care at Laguna Honda Hospital” in the Westside Observer, launching a fund-raising campaign to fund a half-time Hospice Chaplain position at Laguna Honda’s Hospice when City budget cuts heartlessly eliminated a chaplain position in the hospice.
Sister Miriam almost single-handedly recruited and developed a loyal cadre of over 400 dedicated volunteers who donate their time caring for Laguna Honda residents.
A funeral mass for Sister Miriam was held December 9 in Baltimore, and a well-attended memorial service for Sister Miriam was held at Laguna Honda on December 16 led by Bishop William Justice from the San Francisco Archdiocese and Laguna Honda’s Spiritual Care Coordinator Bob Deel. After nearly three decades of dedicated public service to Laguna Honda, noticeably absent from the memorial service were Laguna Honda’s current Executive Administrator Mivic Hirose, Director of Public Health Mitch Katz, District 7 Supervisor Sean Elsbernd, and Mayor Gavin Newsom.
Sister Miriam is survived by her brothers John Walsh of San Mateo, and Raymond Walsh of Wilmington; by her sisters Loretta Marshall of San Francisco and Sister Maura Walsh of Baltimore; and by her extended family in the Mission Helpers of the Sacred Heart.
For nearly three decades, Sister Miriam carried the torch for elderly and disabled residents. Now it’s our turn to keep carrying the torch for her on behalf of LHH’s patients.
Contributions in Sister Miriam’s memory can be made payable to “Mission
Helpers of the Sacred Heart,” 1001 West Joppa Road, Baltimore, MD 21204-3787,
or to “ZHP – LHH Hospice Chaplain Fund,” c/o Zen Hospice Project, 273
Page Street, San Francisco, CA 94102-5616. Both entities are 501(c)(3)
Light a candle, and carry a torch, for Sister Miriam
Sister Miriam Retires from Laguna Honda
When I first walked into Laguna Honda Hospital in 1981, twenty-seven years ago, I knew I had found my calling to provide pastoral care services to my fellow San Franciscans.
Then, I never considered I would one day retire.
It has been my privilege to have served San Francisco for nearly thirty years, but I have decided I must retire this December.
Laguna Honda is graciously celebrating my retirement on December 7 between 1:00 p.m. and 4:00 p.m. in Laguna Honda’s third floor library. A presentation is scheduled at 2:00 p.m.
I hope you will join me as I celebrate the years I have devoted to Laguna Honda. I’d like to tell you how much I have enjoyed helping and supporting people, and advocating for their care. I especially want to thank people who voted in 1999 to approve rebuilding Laguna Honda to care for our elderly.
And I’d like to thank each of you for helping expand volunteer and pastoral programs at Laguna Honda. Residents will need your continued support after I retire.
I hope to see you December 7. Please stop by.
Sister Miriam Walsh, Laguna Honda Hospital Pastoral Care Director, Mission Helpers of the Sacred Heart
DYING PATIENTS LOSE SPIRITUAL CARE AT LAGUNA HONDA
By Sister Miriam Walsh, Director, Pastoral Care Services
Over the past 20 years, the Hospice at Laguna Honda Hospital has cared for over 2,000 dying persons and many more bereaved loved ones. About 50% of our deaths occur in the home-like Hospice, a 25-bed ward with a lovely garden. Patients come from every San Francisco neighborhood with illnesses that range from AIDS to Alzheimer’s. Laguna Honda has received heart-felt community thanks for its Hospice care.
I started Pastoral services on Hospice in 1988. Later, interfaith Chaplains were hired as Spiritual Care Coordinators to provide broader and more consistent support. I was shocked when our valued Hospice Chaplain who earns a mere $26,000 yearly, got a layoff notice for July 1st! This amounts to 0.01% of the hospital’s budget for 1500 employees, only 6 of whom were laid off. Of all the cutbacks, cutting the Hospice Chaplain is the worst. Compared to the hospital’s expenses for remodeling offices and conference rooms, it’s a pittance. Such small savings have big emotional costs. We have no substitute for this unique job. Now, dying patients, their families and friends face needless distress and spiritual isolation.
Doctors have acknowledged the role that spiritual support has on physical health and well-being. Pastoral or spiritual support is crucial to help our patients and loved ones cope with death and dying. Hospice without spiritual services is wrong. This is especially true at Laguna Honda where spiritual needs are enormous but resources are limited. Many here are burdened with disabling illness, poverty and broken relationships. We try very hard to give them spiritual support at this time of their lives. From experience we have learned that dying patients need someone there as they approach the end of life, especially the elderly. And, that each death affects the entire community.
We have volunteer Chaplains, but the time they can spend with patients is limited. Counseling grieving relatives, and arranging for Memorial Services for 100 bereaved families a year is just part of the job of the Spiritual Care Coordinator. The heart of it is regularly visiting the dying, and staying with them through trials and sorrows, and supporting their faith. Without these services, there will be more suffering and grief. More will die in crisis.
Because the need is so great on Hospice, a full-time Chaplain must be available. Community support is urgently needed. If you would like to help the dying at Laguna Honda please contact Sister Miriam Walsh 415-292-3471 or John Farrell (Pastoral Care Volunteer LHH) 415-218-6337
Farewell to Laguna Honda’s Clarendon Hall
By Sister Miriam Walsh
...these recent developments break my heart.
After nearly 30 years providing spiritual care to elderly, disabled, and dying residents at Laguna Honda Hospital, it breaks my heart to say a fond farewell to the beautiful spirit of Clarendon Hall on Laguna Honda’s campus. Like a little city, Laguna Honda’s unique and warm atmosphere has served San Francisco’s most vulnerable citizens for 140 years.
Laguna Honda has been a pearl in San Francisco’s crown. Prematurely closing Clarendon Hall’s 155 beds, followed by rapidly reducing Laguna Honda’s census in the next year to only 780 people, will eliminate 33 percent of Laguna Honda’s skilled nursing beds, leaving our crown jewel in tatters and reducing services to seniors and disabled people.
Cutting these services was not what voters wanted when we passed Proposition A in 1999. Although voters approved a bond measure to rebuild Laguna Honda for our seniors and disabled, the City is employing public relations staff to
downplay this betrayal of the public’s trust.
Proposition A was passed authorizing rebuilding Laguna Honda with a total project budget of $401 million. The City claimed it would rebuild 1,200 skilled nursing beds and 140 assisted living beds. But a recent report indicates the total replacement project for all 1,200 beds now stands at $704 million, $303 million over the initial budget. Now, only 780 beds will be built at a cost $541 million. That’s $140 million more than the initial $401 million budget, providing only two-thirds of the promised 1,200 beds. This isn’t what voters were promised.
Laguna Honda now employs two public relations staff, but never did for 130 years: One, is its Director of Community Affairs; the other, its Director of Government and Community Relations. Combined, they’re paid $200,000 annually. The former’s job classification is an “Affirmative Action Specialist,” and the latter is a “Special Assistant XVI.” In 2001, the City’s Civil Service Commission ruled City departments should stop hiring Special Assistants and hire managers, instead. Mayor Newsom may still be permitted to hire special assistants. But the Special Assistant’s salary is funded from dwindling woe-begotten Department of Public Health funds. Laguna Honda has also hired Wide Angle Communications — the same communications consultants hired by the Mayor’s Long-Term Care Coordinating Council — at unknown cost to support “the hospital’s journey from institution to community.”
While Newsom faces a reported $338 million budget deficit for the upcoming fiscal year, and while DPH has already submitted a reduction of $37 million in cuts to public health programs (with more cuts planned), creating huge waiting lists, why are we funding well over $200,000 for public relations, while eliminating the very community-based services that Laguna Honda residents will not be able to access when they are forced out of the facility, given the $37 million-and-growing cuts?
Rather than funding physical and occupational therapists who might be able to prevent premature deaths due to falls, or to help patients regain their previous level of functioning following a stroke, I never thought we’d fund, instead, public relations staff. Why are we placing public relations above patient care?
In November 2007, Laguna Honda modified its strategic plan, outlining a four-phase plan to create a new “brand” image, as if Laguna Honda is a product needing branding, like some new flavor of toothpaste. The four phases called for a communications audit, a survey of 400 San Francisco households and four focus groups to determine community “awareness and attitudes” about Laguna Honda, a one-year “soft branding” campaign starting in July 2008 using newspaper and transit advertising recounting Laguna Honda’s 140-year history, and a “hard branding” campaign beginning July 2009 leading up to the opening of the rebuilt hospital.
But in March 2008, an updated strategic plan was released. Details of the four-phase campaign were removed, though are still likely in place. The updated plan indicates the Communications Department’s goal is to establish an “organizational identity of resident-centered care,” and also to “establish LHH as a community resource for medical issues related to skilled nursing and use of the campus for recreational and cultural activities.”
Voters never intended to approve rebuilding Laguna Honda to deliver recreational and cultural opportunities. That’s not why I dedicated my ministry to Laguna Honda. We passed Proposition A to provide long-term skilled nursing care to frail elderly and disabled San Franciscans, not to create recreational opportunities.
As we say farewell to Clarendon Hall, these recent developments break my heart. My hope is dedicated San Franciscans will continue striving to protect Laguna Honda’s residents. They deserve no less.
Sister Miriam Walsh
Mission Helpers of the Sacred Heart
Laguna Honda Hospital Pastoral Care Director