March 5, 2004

Family group enters new era with new leadership

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Monica Urness is the new chair of the Family Advisory Council at Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital. (photo by Dana Johnson)

Family group enters new era with new leadership

The leadership of the Family Advisory Council (FAC) for Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital is about to change. Holly lu conant rees is stepping down after nearly a decade of leadership on the FAC, and Monica Urness is stepping up to carry the group into a new era.

“I’ve had the privilege of watching people change because of the FAC,” conant rees said.

“I remember a doctor who came to some of our early planning meetings for the construction of the new hospital. He told us that family-centered care meant ‘the mom is in the room’ and the rest of the time with that patient was his domain. That physician has since changed his tune, but for us, at that time, the biggest hurdle was getting over the thought that family-centered care is just acknowledging family.”

conant rees is ‘retiring’ from chairmanship of the FAC to pursue her already full-time job: advocating for families rights in health care, and taking care of her 21-year-old son who has special needs.

Taking the lead as the new chair of FAC is Urness, who spent years in and out of Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital with her son who had leukemia. Although her son, Devin, has been off treatment for five years, she has remained active in the FAC throughout the building project.

“Holly lu is a terrific advocate for families, as are all the parents. The FAC is just a great collaborative effort,” Urness said. “The families would contribute countless hours and lots of energy in the planning of the hospital. They drew from their perspectives as parents. It was amazing to make suggestions, and to see those suggestions carried through.”

But Urness faces quite a challenge. The FAC gained high profile through the building of the new hospital, and Urness says many people have the mistaken perception that the FAC only existed to help with the new hospital design and planning. She says nothing could be further from the truth.

“If family-centered care is the goal, then parent involvement should be carried out in every facet of the hospital,” Urness said. “The perception is that we’ll step back, and we don’t want our input to stop, we need to be in the day-to-day functional meetings with the departments.”

As Terrell Smith, an administrative director at Vanderbilt Children’s says, family-centered care is what sets the Children’s Hospital apart from other institutions on the Vanderbilt campus. If that is the case, then the FAC serves a key role in making Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital a success.

Smith and others who have worked with conant rees say Urness has some big shoes to fill, but that they know she has the conviction to bring the FAC to the next level, addressing the ongoing relationship between families and the hospital workers at all levels. Smith recalled that conant rees showed tenacity that will be hard to duplicate.

“The reason I’m on this planet is to take care of [my son] Samuel,” conant rees said, “and the FAC has been one way I’ve made change for Samuel in the realm of health care. Federal law protects families where education is concerned, but in health care, we rely on the warm-and-fuzzy intentions of health care providers.”

The concept that protecting the right of children with special health care needs comes from the heart, and not from the law, appears to work well at Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital, said conant rees. But she’d like to see something solid for the future of children with special health care needs nationwide. She is active in a fight for federal laws to ensure that children and youth get the protective health care they need. It’s a goal that could keep her busy for a lifetime.