A Strong Foundation

By Jennifer Massoni Pardini | Photography by Craig Lee

nursing class graduates soon after the 1905 founding of Saint Francis Memorial Hospital. | Photo courtesy of Saint Francis Foundation

It’s not every hospital that has the vital support of an independent foundation. Fortunately for San Franciscans, Saint Francis Memorial Hospital is a rare exception.

From the corner of Hyde and Bush streets — neighboring both the Tenderloin and Nob Hill — Saint Francis Memorial Hospital is a community hospital with outsized impact. The common refrain among its leaders is that they couldn’t do it alone. The independent support of Saint Francis Foundation toward state-of-the-art equipment, staff education and crisis management has proven a critical component of care, both for patients and in the local community.

Some decades later, a group of doctors and nurses partake in a moment of levity. | Photo courtesy of Saint Francis Foundation

“There are 80 foundations in the CommonSpirit [Health] hospital network, all of which are doing incredible work in their communities,” explains SFF interim CEO and registered nurse Kate Smith. “We’re excited to be part of that group, and yet we are a little different as one of only two of these foundations that is not directly underneath the umbrella of a particular hospital.” Over the last 20 years, SFF has given out $60 million in grants, more than 90 percent of which has gone to SFMH. The foundation also supports numerous community partners, including Larkin Street Youth Services, Curry Senior Center and Maitri Compassionate Care. In 2022, $6.6 million in grants have been awarded. Key donors have been, among many others, the Bothin Foundation, Hearst Foundations, Danford Fisher Hannig Foundation and Sierra Health Foundation, with individual support from Gwendolyn Walsh and Fred Levin.

“This partnership and the generous donations are key to our mission of providing excellent care and taking care of the entire community, especially some of the most vulnerable populations,” says Daryn Kumar, president and CEO at SFMH and St. Mary’s Medical Center. “Without the philanthropic support, it would be extremely difficult to provide the level of excellence that we do.”

With it, much has been possible.

SFMH, at a nexus of the City neighborhoods it serves.
SFMH, at a nexus of the City neighborhoods it serves.

The second-busiest emergency department in the City

Dr. Joanne Sun, emergency physician and medical director of the emergency department at SFMH and SMMC, reliably has a busy shift ahead of her, as her department averages 921 EMS transports a month, second only to Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital and Trauma Center, which handles an average of 1,200. “We are actually number one in terms of mental health issues with ambulance traffic in the City and that includes General,” Sun says. Despite this capability, the goal is for earlier interventions to reduce the escalation that leads to these visits. A 2022 SFF grant, Trauma-Informed Street-Based Medical Care in the Tenderloin, enables the Gwendolyn Walsh Emergency Department to connect with the San Francisco Community Health Center “to not only prevent ED returns and eventual admissions, but to also provide a way for a concrete follow-up appointment and plan with our patients leaving the emergency department,” Sun says. “That includes mental health, but also primary care, social issues, wellness and potentially with housing, which is always a big issue for us.”

Those issues also intersect for SFF community partner Larkin Street Youth Services, where over the course of nearly 20 years with the nonprofit, executive director Sherilyn Adams has seen that “as we increase housing and supports for young people, we decrease the number of young people living outside.” Another SFF grant, awarded in May for the second consecutive year, toward “improving wellness for young people experiencing homelessness” is critical to LSYS’s ability to provide those behavioral health supports and early interventions. “If a young person comes into our drop-in center at 134 Golden Gate, and is having some sort of mental health issue or experienced a lot of trauma and maybe going through depression or anxiety, if our staff can intervene and help them to get connected to therapy on site or to a partner, then they’re less likely [to have] that crisis continuing and ending up in the hospital.”

Saint Francis Foundation interim CEO Kate Smith in Boeddeker Park, where the “Everyone Deserves a Home” mural presides. In collaboration with various nonprofits, the foundation and SFMH helped to revitalize the public

Save the Date!

December 3, 7 p.m.

After a nearly decade-long in-person hiatus, the Bella Farrow–founded Hob Nob Gala is coming back. Health care heroes will be celebrated at the Saint Joseph’s Arts Society, a new venue for the event and where interim CEO Kate Smith is looking forward to guests “kicking off the holidays, breaking bread and being able to thank so many health care professionals in one place at one time,” she says. “We’re also excited to show the community, the hospital leadership and staff, and our long-term supporters that we remain 100 percent committed to helping build an even healthier San Francisco.” saintfrancisfoundation.org

Dr. Richard Grossman is medical director of SFMH’s Bothin Burn Center, which treats approximately 400 patients a year, many for months at a time.

San Francisco’s sole dedicated burn center

When Rob Strawder woke up in his San Francisco apartment in December 2011, surrounded by flames, he confronted a reality where he wouldn’t make it out alive. He did — and began a long and arduous recovery at SFMH’s Bothin Burn Center, one of just three regional burn units in Northern California verified by the American Burn Association. Each year, the center treats approximately 400 patients like Strawder, and those who may come from as far as southern Oregon, western Nevada and even internationally.

For Strawder, it was months of surgery and hydrotherapy for dressing changes before his breathing tube was removed and he could interact with his care team. “I remember the first time I actually walked by my own strength outside my room,” he recalls of five first steps, in a video produced by the foundation for its virtual 2020 Hob Nob fundraiser. “The nurses were there at the L desk and technicians were running around. And everyone stopped and looked at me and they started clapping and cheering. … We all walked right then. … It made this horrible scenario of my life somewhat more manageable because I wasn’t doing it by myself.” Now Strawder visits the burn unit to speak with and help new burn survivors.

“Rob’s video captures two things,” says the burn unit’s medical director, Dr. Richard Grossman, who performs 350 burn surgeries a year. “One is the hope a person who had a near-death experience can be filled with when they receive world-class care. The other is the horror of having a burn injury. We can’t celebrate the success without recognizing the terror of what people go through to get better.”

The burn unit at a medium-sized hospital like SFMH can compete with state-supported university centers, like the one at UC Davis, specifically because of SFF. “They’ve supported us our entire [55-year] history,” Grossman says. In 2016, that support included partnering to expand the 10-bed critical care unit to 16 beds. In step with its focus on innovation, SFF recently purchased a laser for adult and pediatric scar management. (Very few facilities exist nationwide that can offer laser treatment to pediatric patients under anesthesia.) The foundation also replaced the unit’s Hoyer lift, which maneuvers patients, often intubated, into a water bath for delicate dressing changes, and provided a virtual reality device to help with pain and anxiety management while patients undergo wound treatments.

Meanwhile, along with the Eugene Lang Foundation in New York City, SFF is funding a nurse recruitment and training program. “The number of people we can treat in the burn unit is linked to the number of nurses we have available per shift,” Grossman says. “The nurses have to have burn interest, burn training and burn skill. So what the foundation has done is enable us to train general critical care nurses to become burn nurses.” The impact is quantifiable, with each trained burn nurse able to care for two patients on a given shift. A new training takes place in September.

A one-of-a-kind gender institute

August is transgender history month in San Francisco, the first city to make this recognition and the home of SFMH’s Gender Institute. Formally founded in 2016, the institute stemmed from a long history of gender surgery at SFMH, initially performed pro bono by the late plastic surgeon Dr. Edward Falces starting in the 1960s.

In 2021, the year SFMH became the first globally to achieve accreditation as a Center of Excellence in Gender Confirmation Surgery by the Surgical Review Corporation, SFF funded $1.7 million for the acquisition of a da Vinci Xi robot for surgical services. Such technology makes the Gender Institute one of the rare places in the country for such specialized gender affirmation surgery. “They have just granted us a second robot for our procedures, which is really phenomenal,” says Gender Institute medical director Dr. Heidi Wittenberg, also medical director of MoZaic Care.

Parts of other approved grants will go toward developing a dedicated, ground-level space at SFMH “so that we’re loud and proud and easy to get to,” she says. Patients will be able to meet for group therapy, consult on hormone therapy and receive other post-op services in one place, an integration that can improve overall outcomes. “This access is important and needed, especially as SFMH is on the doorstep of the Transgender District,” Wittenberg says of the first legally recognized district of its kind in the world, and which encompasses eight blocks in the Tenderloin.

“Essentially, we are the primary source of treatment for many people who live in the Tenderloin,” says chief of staff Dr. Victor Prieto, who has practiced at SFMH since the 1990s.

The first sports medicine center in Northern California

On the 11th floor of SFMH, where the Center for Sports Medicine is undergoing renovations thanks to the foundation, are 360-degree views of San Francisco. “There’s nothing like it in the City for people going to physical therapy,” says Dr. Victor Prieto, chief of staff at the hospital and former chair of surgery.

The center was begun at Saint Francis by Prieto’s senior associate and partner, Dr. James Garrick, in 1979 (the same year SFF officially launched). “This was the second one in the state of California,” Prieto says. “In fact, when Stanford, as well as UCSF, started up theirs, they came here to look at the model of how it was set up at Saint Francis Hospital.”

The San Mateo native is straightforward about the vital commitment of the foundation, which has “always stepped up” when needed and remained steadfast in its support of the hospital — including through transitional mergers from Catholic Healthcare West to Dignity Health to now CommonSpirit Health.

“Saint Francis was one of the last private hospitals in the country to join a large group. In fact, we were one of the last hospitals with a fiduciary board,” Prieto says. “One of the things that helped it was keeping the foundation a separate entity from the hospital itself.”

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