Ed Stelmach, former premier, devout Ukrainian Catholic and Mundare area farmer is the new chair of the board for Covenant Health.

WCR PHOTO | RAMON GONZALEZ

Ed Stelmach, former premier, devout Ukrainian Catholic and Mundare area farmer is the new chair of the board for Covenant Health.

April 4, 2016
RAMON GONZALEZ
WESTERN CATHOLIC REPORTER

For Ed Stelmach, it's all about preserving the legacy of the good sisters of yesteryear in order to serve the most vulnerable of today.

That's why the former Alberta premier accepted the title of chair of the board of Covenant Health last January after serving as member at large since October 2012, a year after leaving the premier's office.

Stelmach has always had a deep respect for Covenant, which has its roots in the religious orders of women that began caring for the ill in Alberta more than 150 years ago.

Covenant Health provides health care services to all Albertans through 18 sites in 12 communities across Alberta.

"I'm very passionate about Covenant Health and continuing the sisters' legacy," Stelmach said. "They've delivered health services in Canada for 450 years and in Alberta for 150 plus years.

"If it wasn't for the sisters, we wouldn't have had the hospital and care services that we had early on in our history. It's important to continue the compassionate care that they provided."

Stelmach, a proud father of four and grandfather to seven, said the sisters had a major influence on him early in his life.

"I have always had a tremendous interest in making sure we take care of the most vulnerable in our society and Covenant Health has been very good at that. Especially during these tough economic times, the government needs as many partners as they can find to deliver the services."

Stelmach believes Covenant Health is an excellent partner for the Government of Alberta and Alberta Health Services to deliver not only acute care but continuing care, assisted living and services for the mentally ill.

The selection of Stelmach, 64, as chairman has been described as a "power move" for Covenant, which hopes to expand its presence in continuing care, while also obtaining funding to replace Edmonton's aging Misericordia Hospital.

One of Stelmach's challenges as chair of the board is financial.

"The other is our aging infrastructure. One would be the Misericordia and of course we have other facilities in Alberta that will require some upgrading," he said.

"So we have to work closely with the government to put a plan together, especially here for the redevelopment of the Misericordia in an area of the city that is rapidly growing in population."

While detailed plans are being worked out, Alberta Health Services suggests the new Misericordia could double the 300 beds in its current facility, and come with a price tag of up to $2.7 billion.

The project must compete with other health infrastructure demands, including a proposal for a $4.5-billion overhaul of the Royal Alex Hospital site and a $750-million expansion in Red Deer.

PRICE OF OIL

Stelmach says financial challenges will never go away.

"I learned as a premier it didn't matter if oil is $148 a barrel or $37, there are always those challenges of finding enough money to look after all of the different needs in providing health care."

Another challenge is "this whole area of physician-assisted death that the Supreme Court has imposed on Parliament," he says.

"We know it is morally wrong, and it will be a challenge, but I'm confident that we'll never close the doors to anyone, and we will find some ways of working through.

"It's kind of premature because we are still waiting for the legislation to be drafted and passed by the federal government and then we will wait for the province to make the decision."

ASSISTED SUICIDE

What will be Covenant's response?

"First of all, it will be the law, but on the other hand our position is very strong in that we will not offer those services in any of our facilities," Stelmach said.

"So the next step is to work with government and work out a process whereby we would never abandon anyone under our care, but on the other hand find a way of meeting the needs of the patient."

Assisted suicide, Stelmach said, goes against both Scripture and the principles of Covenant Health.

"The sisters developed palliative care (care for the dying) in the province of Alberta. It is not just prolonging death but ensuring that the patient himself dies in dignity. The sisters recognized this, not just the last number of years, but way, way back."

In the old days, when hospitals didn't have the medical technologies available today, the sisters in the small hospital at Mundare had a small room set aside for the dying. The family would get together with their loved ones and ensure that the patient was as comfortable as can be, recalled Stelmach.

Nowadays, Covenant Health has over 90 palliative care beds and hospice beds for those who are terminally ill.

Stelmach was raised on a farm east of Lamont and did elementary and high school in Andrew. His grandparents came from Ukraine in 1898, one of 12 families that came from the same Ukrainian village.

As a child, Stelmach didn't speak much English. "I didn't know any at all," he said. Three days after he started Grade 1, young Ed fell off a slide and broke his femur. He was driven to Mundare Hospital, where he spent more than two months.

HOLISTIC CARE

"During that period of time, the sisters not only took care of me physically, mending my body, but also spiritually and mentally," he recalled. "They instructed different male patients in the ward to read to me and to teach me arithmetic.

"So in the two and a half months I spent in hospital, I had private tutoring day and night. I had my leg in a steel crate, a big steel cage, so I wasn't going anywhere.

"One of the sisters would come late, late at night and under very dim light she'd read to me and I would read back to her."

LASTING BOND

This established a lasting bond between Ed and the Sisters Servants of Mary Immaculate. "If it wasn't for them I probably would have missed that first year in Grade 1 and who knows what my life would have been afterwards."

He still lives on the original homestead where his grandparents settled. When he moved there in 1975, "we had about an 1,100-foot home and we probably added maybe 700 square feet or something. It's a small house, enough to raise the children and a little tight with all the grandkids, but we manage. No big house or mansion on the farm."

Being a Catholic "definitely helped" his political career. "The reason is that it gives you a good faith foundation, stamina, endurance and also confidence - confidence that at the end of the day if what you are doing is right, the good Lord will make it happen."

HUMILITY NEEDED

Faith also gives you humility, which is missing in politics today, he said. "I think the reason for my success is being humble."

He has a devotion to St. Ephrem, a fourth century Syrian theologian, and it was after praying to St. Ephrem that he decided to run for premier.

Stelmach continues to have an active prayer life. "Now I'm praying for good health," he laughed.

He and his wife Marie attend church every Sunday and sing in the choir. Ed is also a member of Ukrainian Catholic Brotherhood, and Marie is active in the Catholic Women's League. The couple also volunteers at Andrew's Lions Club, St. Michael's Ag Society and with many other groups.