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Leslie Saulsbury, music therapist at Altru Health System, uses music to help a young patient cope with a hospital stay. Child Life Services such as music therapy are among the programs that are supported by the Altru Health Foundation. IMAGE: ALTRU HEALTH FOUNDATION

Foundational: Region's hospital foundations play vital health care role

It’s simple: A patient rolls into the emergency room at  Essentia Health-Fargo, and if time is of the essence and the injuries seem dire, ER staffers will cut off the patient’s clothes.

Now it’s hours or days later, and the patient is ready to go home.

But wearing what?

The answer is, wearing clothes – clothes drawn out of a supply locker that the Essentia Health Regional Foundation keeps stocked.  

“We heard about this need from the staff, we asked some businesses to partner with us, and now we keep a closet full of clothing in the ER,” said Susan Omdalen, the foundation’s development director.

“It’s the kind of thing a hospital can’t charge an insurance company for, but that provides that little extra warmth to our patients – because they’re not wearing paper shorts home.”

The clothes operation is just one of hundreds or thousands of similar efforts by hospital foundations around the region, efforts that add up to millions of dollars in value.

Or even billions, considering the region’s leading health-care philanthropist, T. Denny Sanford, is approaching that milestone on his own. “To date, Mr. Sanford has entrusted Sanford Health with nearly $1 billion in gifts to advance bold research and patient care initiatives,” notes the Sanford Health Foundation’s 2017 annual report.

And while no other regional hospital’s foundation can approach Sanford’s worldwide reach, all of them are making dramatic – and generally unsung – contributions to the region’s health care and quality of life.

Filling the gaps

In Grand Forks, N.D., the Altru Health Foundation sponsors Camp Good Mourning, North Dakota’s only grief camp and a chance for children who’ve lost a loved one to experience both high ropes and low adventures such as canoeing, wall climbing, campfires and crafts.  

In Fargo, parents of babies in Essentia's expanded Neonatal Intensive Care Ward will be able to sleep in their child's room, thanks to pull-out couches being provided by the Essentia foundation.

And in Minot, N.D., the Trinity Health Foundation offers 10 $3,000 nursing scholarships a year. Do the nurses have to commit to working at the Trinity hospital in return? No, they do not, said Al Evon, foundation director.

“It’s a true scholarship program; it doesn’t matter what school people go to or where they’re going to go to work,” Evon said.

“The fact is, there’s a shortage of nurses, and that could have a dramatic effect on the health and well-being of people across the state. We just thought, ‘Let’s attack this head-on.’”

Around the country, philanthropy plays a significant role in the health care revenue stream. For example, donations to American and Canadian nonprofit hospitals and health care systems totaled nearly $11.7 billion during the 2016 fiscal year, a $63 million increase over 2015, the Association for Healthcare Philanthropy reported.

And those numbers are going to keep going up, because philanthropy’s importance is certain to rise, said Jon Green, Altru Health Foundation director.

”There are a couple of reasons for this,” Green said.

“First, health care reimbursements from Medicare, Medicaid and insurance companies keep shrinking. That’s not a complaint; it’s just reality. So reliance on donors is going to keep growing.”

Just as important, the term “health care” now refers to a great many things that bring little reimbursement at all – notably, prevention.

“How do we spend our dollars keeping people healthy instead of after they’ve gotten sick? That’s a real focus here at Altru,” Green said.

“But we haven’t quite graduated in the reimbursement world to paying well for prevention.”

That’s why the Altru foundation offers free mammograms, free colonoscopies, and free diabetes-related foot and vision exams for financially eligible patients.

“So a doctor says to a patient, ‘You’re 62 with a family history of colon cancer, but you’ve never had a colonoscopy,’” Green said.

“The patient says, ‘I know, Doc, but I can’t afford it.’ And the doctor says, ‘We have a program that can help.’”

Travel and housing

Another area where hospital foundations pitch in is with expenses related to long-term stays.

Some time ago, a Minot-area family traveled to Washington state to visit a loved one in a hospital, and stayed in the hospital’s guest house. “They said, ‘That’s such a great idea, let’s bring it back to Minot’,” Evon said.

So they did. And this year, the Trinity Guest House is celebrating its 10th anniversary.

The 12-bedroom guest house has hosted 19,000 people from 46 states over the years, Evon said.

Then there’s the Trinity CancerCare Cottage, which is for cancer patients. “We have people coming from several hours away, and often they have to go through four to six weeks of treatment,” Evon said.

“The cottage is available to them so they don’t have to drive back and forth every day. It minimizes their travel and it helps them relax, and that means it helps them recover a little faster every day.”

Thanks to its annual Cancer Center golf tournament, the Altru foundation also offers lodging for cancer patients, Green said. “That started because we literally saw cancer patients sleeping in their cars in the parking lot in front of the cancer center.”

Then there were patients who skipped treatment sessions because “they couldn’t afford to put gas in their car,” Green said.

So for patients who qualify financially, the Altru Foundation will pay for gas, lodging and nutritional supplements for patients who can’t tolerate solid food.

“You ask, what does the foundation spend its money on?” Green said.

“Literally, we are spending $10,000 a month in gas cards, and $4,000 to $5,000 a month on hotel stays. … We have an arrangement with a hotel in Rochester, Minn. They direct-bill us, when our patients have to go down to the Mayo Clinic.”

Why give?

These and other programs directly benefit patients. Some foundations directly support their hospital, too. The Trinity Health Foundation, for example, has promised to raise $10 million to support Trinity Health’s new $275 million hospital in Minot, construction of which will start this spring.

But how about donors? What motivates them?

Simple: The desire to make a difference, said Bobbie Tibbetts, vice president of the Sanford Health Foundation in Sioux Falls, S.D.

During its 2017 fiscal year, the Sanford foundation raised $40 million from a total of nearly 20,000 donors, Tibbetts said.

Some donors bestowed gifts in memory of a loved one. Others gave through the Guardian Angel program, which lets people honor a Sanford patient-care staffer.

“It’s such a joy hearing those stories as they come in,” Tibbetts said. “It may have been a doctor who stood out, or it may have been the nurse who every single time during cancer treatments, greeted patients with a smile.”

Other times, fundraisers either solicit donations for a specific need, or help donors find the area where their money will do the most good.

In all of this, that word “donors” is the one to remember, Altru Foundation’s Green said.

“When I hear people say, ‘Gosh, the foundation does such good work,’ I say, ‘We’re just the pipeline. We’re the conduit.’

“It’s the donors – our wonderful donors who understand our mission, and are willing to help.

“They get the credit. Not us.”