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Nun Is Historic, Still Making History : Founding St. Jude Administrator Sees Much More to Be Done in Health Care

September 15, 1988|JAN HOFMANN | Jan hofmann is a regular contributor to Orange County Life

Sister Jane Frances Power isn't quite sure how she feels about being considered an important part of Orange County history. That depends, she says, on how the word is defined.

If you're talking about history as in her lasting contributions to the community, she doesn't shy away from the term, although she is quick to point out that any honor she receives also belongs to the other Sisters of St. Joseph of Orange. She couldn't have done any of it, she insists, without the support and legacy of the order that came here in the 1920s and stayed despite Ku Klux Klan cross-burnings and storekeepers who refused to serve nuns.

But if you mean history in the sense of something that's finished, then don't use the word around her. She may be 75 years old with 55 years of health-care work behind her, but Power isn't about to call it a career. She's still busy making more history.

The youngest of 30 women cited in the YWCA's "Women of Distinction in Orange County History" exhibit, Power admits that being one of only two honorees still living makes her feel a bit awkward. (The other, Ruth Thomas Segerstrom, is 90.)

"There are a lot of other women out there who are doing things now," says Power, the founding administrator of St. Jude Hospital & Rehabilitation Center in Fullerton. "Couldn't they have named some of them?"

Since Power got into the healing field in 1933, she has seen diseases such as diphtheria and polio take their toll and be vanquished. People aren't likely to die of pneumonia anymore, she points out, unless it's pneumocystis pneumonia, the opportunistic infection that comes with AIDS.

Now, instead of dealing with whooping cough or organizing mass polio vaccinations, as she did in decades past, Power spends much of her time arranging treatment for AIDS patients.

Her historical perspective helps her believe that "just around the corner, we're going to find the cure for that, too."

Power was a pre-med student at UCLA when she heard the call to become a nun. Her friends were more than a bit surprised. "People who knew me didn't think I had any signs or symptoms of a good religious person," she says.

Although she abandoned her dream of becoming a doctor when she joined the convent, Power wasn't about to abandon health care. In fact, she says she chose the Sisters of St. Joseph specifically because the order was so involved in medicine.

"Anyone who ever gets into the (health-care) field seldom leaves because anything you do ends up helping people," she says.

She also liked the order's approach to health care, treating not just the disorder but the person suffering from it.

Since she made her choice, other orders have emerged in which she could have completed her training and become a medical missionary. But Power says she has no regrets about not becoming a doctor.

"I'm a strong believer in divine providence," she says. "I believe God calls you with a vocation."

So Power sees nothing odd about the fact that she became a hospital administrator because a man got off the train at the wrong stop one day in 1947.

The man happened to be an inspector for the American College of Surgeons and it was his job to inspect hospitals for accreditation. Once he realized his mistake, the inspector decided to make the best of it and asked directions to the nearest hospital. That happened to be Fullerton General Hospital, a 50-bed facility where Power was doing a little of everything, helping out in the lab, X-ray, surgery, whatever needed to be done.

"He found so many things wrong that after he left, another sister and myself sat down to decide what to do next. She said, 'I'll take everything that has to do with nursing and you take the rest.' So from 1947 to 1957, I was in medical records and administration."

After World War II, "the population just flowed into Orange County," Power recalls. The hospital struggled to keep up but it couldn't expand and continue to meet licensing requirements, "so the only thing for us to do was to close it (in 1953)."

Several years and a couple of false starts later, St. Jude Hospital, with Power as administrator, was dedicated on May 11, 1957, "in the pouring rain," she remembers. "We had 125 beds and we thought that would be fabulous. Three days after we opened, we were wall-to-wall with patients. So we started planning again."

In 1962, the hospital added another 125 beds. In 1971, it expanded again, this time adding a rehabilitation center.

Power insists it was community effort, not her own, that made the hospital a reality. "I was not the one instrumental in getting the hospital there," she says. "But from 1957 on, I can take credit."

Actually, Power only gives herself credit for a single accomplishment at St. Jude: the new chapel, which was a personal cause. For everything else, she shares whatever praise she receives with the other members of her order.

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