An internationally recognized advocate for patients and families in health care, longtime hospital executive Patricia Sodomka died early this morning at Medical College of Georgia Hospital, which she once ran. She was 60.
Sodomka was diagnosed four years ago with breast cancer that had already advanced to nearby lymph nodes, according to an account her husband, Dennis, posted to her CarePages site. After extensive treatment, the cancer came back 18 months later. She fought through extensive bouts of radiation and chemotherapy before a large tumor was discovered in her arm in January. She checked into the hospital about a week ago for the final time.
Sodomka is survived by numerous family, including her husband, her daughter, Mary Ellen Lewis, and her son, Michael.
Her grave illness came up Thursday at the Association of American Medical Colleges Board of Directors meeting in Washington, D.C., said its president and CEO, Dr. Darrell G. Kirch, a former dean of the School of Medicine at MCG and a longtime friend of Sodomka.
"Many people around the table were expressing their sadness about Pat's illness because of the high regard they have for her," Kirch said. "I think most people in the Augusta community probably do not know that she is a highly regarded national figure in the area of bringing the patient and their family back to the center of health care."
Sodomka came to MCG in 1987 and it was while she was administrator of the Children's Medical Center in 1993, which was in the planning stages for a new hospital, that she first heard about patient- and family-centered care. Bev Johnson, president and CEO of the Institute for Family-Centered Care, still remembers that first phone call from Sodomka asking to know more about it so she could share it with staff and patients.
"And to this day, that was a style of leadership she had was the openness to the new ideas and very much the openness to partner with patients and families," Johnson said. That was the same year Sodomka also befriended the mother of a patient with severe heart problems, Daniel Moretz, and eventually persuaded her to become the first chair of the Family Advisory Council that would provide insight into how the children's hospital not only operated but was designed. The two were sitting in Daniel's room one day when they were kicked out because the clinicians were about to start rounds, Julie Ginn Moretz recalled.
"She took my hands and she looked at me, and she said, 'Julie, I know we're not there yet but I promise you one day we will be a patient- and family-centered facility. Mark my words.' " Moretz said. That was often her way - acknowledging a problem but looking forward with a positive attitude to the solution, Moretz said. The $53 million Children's Medical Center would go on to win accolades for its design and accommodation for families, from things like a trundle bed under the patients bed to make it easier for parents to stay with the child.
Sodomka went on to serve as executive director of MCG Hospital and Clinics from 1994 until the formation of MCG Health to run the clinical system in 2000, when she then became chief operating officer and then senior vice president for patient- and family-centered care. She was also the director of the Center for Patient- and Family-Centered Care at MCG. No matter how busy she was, however, she would always stop to offer comfort, and a Diet Coke and sit and listen, MCG Health Interim President and CEO Sandra I. McVicker said.
"It might only take 10 minutes or it could take an hour, but she always found time for people and helped support us in our need when she might have been the busiest or she might have been having a bad day too," she said. "But you know we never knew when Pat had a bad day."
It was that compassion that drew her to be patient- and family-focused, said Moretz, now the director of special projects for the Institute for Family-Centered Care.
"She had a unique ability to bring people together," she said. "It's OK to be nice and still be able to get things done in the health care system. She was able to use her gentleness and her resourcefulness to be able to make an impact and to really turn people's heads and make them realize, you know this is the right way to go. It is the right thing to do."
Sodomka often gave the credit for others even as she was gaining a national and then international reputation as a leader in the patient- and family-centered health care field.
"She would never accept that as her doing this alone," Moretz said. "She has just garnered so much respect because it wasn't about her. It was about doing the right thing."
But she did have wide-ranging respect, Johnson said.
"I think of her as really a national leader for advancing the practice of patient- and family-centered care," she said. "Really you could say national and international leader because people have come to our conferences and seminars to hear her and to see the kind of work that people have done collaboratively at MCG."
It was because of who she was, Johnson said.
"A quality of a leader, of an effective leader is someone who is very genuine," she said. "It is the kind of person they are. Pat's goodness just shone in everything she did."
Moretz saw that as they attended church together at the Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Resurrection.
"She was a very spiritual person," she said. "I can remember her just always being there. She seemed to know when you needed a hug, when you just needed someone to lean on."
Accountability was important to her, as she was founding chairwoman of the Georgia Hospital Association's Partnership for Health and Accountability to improve quality of care and patient safety. She was always encouraging patients to speak up if they had questions or saw something amiss, McVicker said.
Her work helped lead to the health system being featured in the PBS documentary Remaking American Medicine. Last year she received the 2009 Georgia Hospital Association Hospital Heroes Award as an "international ambassador for patient family centered care," the association said in announcing the award. Last summer, the Institute for Family-Centered Care came down to film a new video featuring MCG and Sodomka that should wrap up production in the next couple of months, Johnson said.
"We're thrilled that Pat will be part of that as well," she said.
But Sodomka and the change of culture she wrought will live on, McVicker said.
"That is her legacy," she said. "Her legacy is not just for us, it is for all across the United States, nationally and internationally."
"Her work will continue, no doubt about that," Moretz said. "And she will forever be remembered for her role in advancing patient- and family-centered care."