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A Mission Without Borders

John Commins, for HealthLeaders Media, September 13, 2011
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Michael Rowan, executive vice president and chief operations officer at Denver-based Catholic Health Initiatives, believes the mission of hospitals should expand beyond the fixed walls of a building and into the communities they serve. Rowan is an enthusiastic advocate for CHI’s overseas missions, having traveled twice to Tanzania and once to Belize in the past five years to promote health services such as public sanitation, HIV/AIDS education and prevention, and malaria eradication. The second trip to Tanzania afforded him a chance to climb Mount Kilimanjaro.

On the mission: At CHI, our mission speaks to the idea that we should be improving the health status of people in the communities we serve. We already know that some of the best ways to do that are not just about being the biggest, fanciest hospital in the community. When you visit a Third World country you can boil that down more closely to understand the impact we can have and the importance of the things we do outside the walls of the hospital. It validates and reaffirms for us what we need to continue to do in the United States.

On Tanzania: We took medical and surgical supplies, and there was an opportunity for someone from senior leadership to go over there and understand the contributions we were making in those communities. What we were doing is going beyond just sponsoring the hospitals, but understanding that the health of a population is equally dependent upon issues related to economics and business development, and education levels. We sponsored a goat program in some of the villages. The herd can produce enough milk—two gallons a day—to feed the families. Likewise they can sell some of that food. It is basic economic empowerment that can put food on the table but also allow them to move beyond subsistence living.

On Belize: We helped build housing for families who have children with AIDS. There is a great deal of discrimination down there, and children who, through no fault of their own, have contracted AIDS or are born with it have a hard time getting into school or day care, and their families have a hard time finding housing.

On Mount Kilimanjaro: I was hoping I was going to go up there and actually see the curvature of the earth on a wonderful sunny day. I got up there in a blinding snowstorm and you couldn’t see 20 feet in front of you. But what was beautiful was one of the people in my group was a local safari guide, our minivan driver who’d looked at Kilimanjaro all his life but had never gone up. For him as a local it was an incredible emotional response. He broke down in tears. He made it up there with his friends, including me. That was a beautiful image.

Reprint HLR0911-11

John Commins is a senior editor with HealthLeaders Media.

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