Talk to Sister Carol Keehan long enough and you’ll notice that certain words keep reappearing in the conversation – respect, dignity, moral principles.
Those are characteristics that she always has sought to guarantee during a career that has led from working as a nurse to serving as president of the oldest hospital in the nation’s capital to leading the Catholic Health Association of the United States. As importantly, those are characteristics that she insists must inspire any health care provider – and especially a Catholic one.“We have to offer the things that make up any good hospital – quality and efficiency – and we have to recruit good employees and medical staff,” she said. “But we also must bring a mission component that, yes, we honestly believe that people are made in the image of God. We need to provide care with the commitment and understanding that if you come to a Catholic hospital, regardless of your situation, we will treat you with dignity and as a child of God.
“Ours is far more than a job. We are very clear about that in the choices that we make – that they’re not based just on whether we’ll get a good return on our dollars, but also on what’s good for the community.”
Those are rather tall and clear expectations, especially for an industry wracked by runaway costs and always seeking to reform its practices, but Keehan finds them reasonable and attainable. She also has an imposing bully pulpit, though she would not call it that, from which to deliver her message: 600 Catholic hospitals and 1,400 Catholic nursing homes, surgical centers and clinics in the United States employ more than one million people and treat one of every six people hospitalized.
“In many communities, we’re the only hospital or the largest hospital,” she said, “so we have a profound impact on them both in terms of the health care we deliver and the jobs we provide. We make a difference.”
Keehan always has made a difference herself since she earned her nursing degree. Born in Providence Hospital in Washington, D.C., she grew up in a family of five in southern Maryland and chose to enroll at the De Paul Hospital School of Nursing in Norfolk, Va. The Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul ran the school, and it occurred to her that she might enter that community.
“I’d think about it and say, ‘Whoa, not me. Give me another option,’ but it became increasingly clear that’s what God was asking me to do,” she said. “You could easily see what a difference the sisters’ commitment to the care of patients and families meant. You also could see a wonderful, strong community life. They enjoyed each other, and there was a great deal of happiness and laughter. They had the right priorities.”
The new member of the order became a nurse at Providence Hospital, which the Daughters of Charity founded in 1861, and then at “the ripe old age of 25” her superiors tapped her to run Sacred Heart Children’s Hospital in Pensacola, Fla. The goal was to centralize pediatric care for the entire region, with intensive care, perinatal and neonatal units in one location.
“At 25, you think you can do anything!” she said. “I was just asked to try. We had a lot of bright people, and I knew we would bring a lot of talent to the table. We had such wonderful physicians and nurses. Those were 10 great years.”
Keehan returned to Providence in 1979 to serve as its vice president for nursing. One of the head nurses, Choko Sumiyoshi, persuaded Keehan that she should visit Japan to teach and learn about its health care system. She made that trip in 1980 – and every year or two since.
“It has been a great opportunity to study another culture and another system,” she said. “Each of our systems has wonderful things to contribute, and each has some deficiencies. Part of coming up with a better health care system here is to learn from what others – in Europe, Canada and Japan – have done.”
Sumiyoshi worked at Providence from 1967 to 1999 and today is a nursing professor. She said Keehan made a powerful impression on Japanese health care management leaders, giving them “good advice on how to update health care systems in hospitals.”
Keehan moved to Sacred Heart Hospital in Cumberland, Md., to serve as its president in 1987, and two years later returned again to Providence, this time as its president and chief executive officer. During her 15-year tenure, the hospital took over operation of a nursing home from the Archdiocese of Washington and then opened a 240-bed home on the Providence campus. It also opened a new operating wing and neighborhood clinics to serve poor families and expanded its outreach to pregnant women and their infants through its Center for Life.
“It was a challenging time at first,” she said, “but also a very good time because we found out how much people believe in the importance of Catholic health care and care for the poor.”
Keehan’s departure in 2004 to serve as chair of the Sacred Heart Health System in Pensacola was greeted with sadness.
Keehan herself said she was “heartbroken” to leave Providence, but that came as no surprise to her. “I have hated to leave every job I’ve ever had, and I have fallen in love with every new job.”
The following year, the Catholic Health Association presidency came open, and associates encouraged her to apply. She knew the organization well, having just finished a term as its board chair, and took the position in October 2005.
“She was the natural choice,” said Lloyd Dean, chair of the association’s board and president of San Francisco-based Catholic Health Care West, which has 42 hospitals. He cited “her leadership skills, her relationships with key Catholic constituencies, her experience in leading Catholic health care organizations and her passion in advocating for care for the poor and the underserved.”
Two years later, Modern HealthCare magazine named Keehan the “Most Powerful Person in Health Care.” Such recognition gives her an important platform for discussions about health care reform, which she believes will be taken more seriously this time around.
“There is more resolve today,” she said. “Everybody says we have to reform the system – labor, small businesses, insurance companies, the pharmaceuticals – and that we have to do it right. People who were lukewarm at best, and sometimes downright hostile in the past, want to work together.”
Keehan doesn’t know how long she’ll serve as association president, but she’s not worried about job security. “You have to know the Daughters of Charity,” she said with a laugh. “If you’re breathing, you’re working. The future will take care of itself.”