McPhee saved the babies, left spiritual legacy

Austin American-Statesman, April 19, 2014

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Even chance encounters with her could change your life ...

The iconic Sr. Mary Rose McPhee, who died April 15 at the age of 95 at a Daughters of Charity retirement center in Evansville, Ind., was a celestial force in the lives of many thousands of people in Austin. She was the chief executive officer of what is now Seton Medical Center Austin when I was a new nurse in 1979.

Her heart ached that infants born prematurely or sick had to be transferred to San Antonio or Houston for care. Most of the preemies simply wouldn’t make the trip.

Reminiscent of how the Austin community rallied to bring the Daughters here in 1902, Sister, with her legendary powers of persuastion, rallied the community once again to open Austin’s first neonatal intensive care unit. It opened in 1979, the year I graduated.

As a young girl I wanted to become a nurse and work in Africa with Dr. Albert Schweitzer. That didn’t happen, but I did get to work with the legendary neonatologist Dr. Jacob Kay, whose skill, attention to detail, commitment and love for the babies and their families were epic. Sr. Mary Rose and Dr. Kay made my dreams come true, and I worked in that same unit for 32 years.

McPhee left Austin for awhile, but returned in 1993. She opened the Seton Cove in 1995, saying often that she named it after Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton who saw God (grace) in all things, and that if we would open our eyes and our hearts, we could as well. She believed that each one of us is spiritual, and the Cove would a place for people of all faiths and people of no faith. It has served this community for nearly 20 years.

By the time she returned to Austin, I was writing Seton NursingNews and commentaries for newspapers. She left Austin in 2004, and I would send her my work. She and the other Sisters knew I was a non-believer, but religion was not something we ever talked about. They could see that through my political and community work and writing that I was like them — working for the sick and the poor. After a commentary I wrote in 2007 encouraging legislators to make it easier for parents to insure their children, she wrote me an email saying, “Thank you for your persistent concern for the Poor — a true ‘Vincentian Spirit.'”

A master’s-prepared psychiatric nurse, McPhee would look deep into your soul with love and kindness. Even chance encounters with her could change your life, as it did for David C. Smith, founder of the Hill Country Ride for AIDS.

In 1995, he was executive director of Interact (now Care Communities), which cared for people with AIDS and cancer, and McPhee was a founding board member. The agency had a long waiting list and David asked her for more funding to expand the number of care teams. She told him to wait a year, to get to know the poor, to not see them as something separate.

“For a year I volunteered for people who had depleted their resources and had no family. I helped clean their houses, made sure they took their meds, drove them to doctor appointments,” he said. “It radically changed the way I saw service on a practical and personal level. I felt a much deeper connection and saw that we are all the same. I went back to her a year later to asked for more funding. This time she told me to ask for triple the amount, and she secured the funding.”

Sr. Mary Rose inspired and elevated everyone whose lives she touched. And through her grace and magic, she has saved the lives of many thousands of sick and premature infants in Central Texas who otherwise would have died. Rest in peace, Sr. Mary Rose.

Toni Inglis, MSN, RN, CNS, FAAN, is a lifelong Austin resident and retired editor and neonatal intensive care nurse. She writes a monthly opinion column for the Austin American-Statesman editorial page.