One of the sometimes-challenging realities of Thanksgiving is that it forces us to look into the microscope of our personal time here on earth and acknowledge the change that will always be a part of our humanity. This week I received a phone call that should never have been necessary “in my lifetime.” One of my former employees passed away. For those of you who have some knowledge of my past, you might scratch your head in confusion regarding my deep consternation and pain from the loss of one person, because there were literally thousands of employees with whom I have worked over the years. But, for the others of you who know me well, you will clearly understand.
When I became the president of my former hospital, the waves of change had touched on it shores only briefly as it had attempted to avoid being consumed by neighboring health systems. Because of this challenge of competition, we were given the authority to “try some new things” to attempt to preserve the facility as a community hospital. To say that the road ahead was laced with hazards would be a serious understatement, but we did navigate those sometimes treacherous waters successfully.
As my tenure began in this difficult environment, a few people stepped forward who “got it.” Winnie Horner was one of those people. She “got it” from our first presentation about our dreams and plans. Winnie was literally one of a handful of people who was willing to put herself out there to help the hospital establish new dreams, new ideals, new goals, and new caring philosophies.
Because a concept seems easier to embrace if it can be identified with others, we became a Planetree Hospital, the third in the United States and the first in Pennsylvania. It was our goal to become a Healing Hospital. It helped to jump start us into a new world of compassionate, healing, loving care that literally gave new life to the organization and helped it to remain not only open but also to succeed in ways that could never have been imagined.
Winnie not only “got on board,” for a long time she became the engineer of that train. Her passion, her kind ways, her belief in spirituality, her amazing voice, and her commitment to change was always obvious and appreciated. She was a leader, a champion, the Joan of Arc of this effort, and I loved her for this.
Unfortunately, she will not get to read this because, at 48 years of age, she died this week. Unbeknownst to her, she had been working with pneumonia, but, like Winnie always did, she kept giving of herself. Who would have ever thought that it would have had this ending, and her three beautiful children are now without their mom this Thanksgiving.
So today, I write to you, Winnie. You were a very important part of the soul of Windber Medical Center, and your presence will always be felt, but your absence will be felt even more deeply.
For me, Thanksgiving has always been a time of change, starting at a very young age as grandparents, uncles, aunts, and parents passed on. The empty chairs at the table were always indicative of our own mortality, and the loss of those we love, be it permanent or just because of the sometimes-messy circumstances that are a part of living, is a reality that we all must deal with throughout our time here on Earth.
It’s ironic that, as commercial as our country has become, the tradition of Thanksgiving has remained virtually untouched in the essence of its meaning. If you are alone for Thanksgiving, or with a cast of dozens, take a moment to reflect upon your life and your gifts. Understand that nothing is permanent, and that, like Winnie Horner, we all have a chance to make a difference in thousands of lives, a positive, forever difference.
This year, Winnie and her passionate partners were able to achieve something that has only happened a handful of times in the world. Through their work, Windber became a Planetree Designated Hospital, a model of care in the Planetree philosophy, my final Windber dream. Thank you, Winnie, and if any of you don’t believe that you can make a difference, a real difference, take a page out of “Winnie’s Book.” She was one of the best.