Owed to St. Francis
Dr. Frank Averill and his wife Rose knew God was directing them to step out in faith and start a new medical practice from scratch.
However, leaving a successful group practice where Frank was on the board of directors to found a new medical facility that would incorporate the Catholic faith into its daily routines would be a daunting task for anybody.
Faith in action
“We felt we were being called to do it,” Frank explained. “But like many calls, you sort of start to have cold feet and you start to wonder if you’re really on the right path.”
For Rose, who still had two teenagers living at home and was working as a substitute teacher, all she had to go on was her “yes” to God’s will.
“The most tremendous thing God gave me in all of this is that He took someone who was not able and enabled them,” she said. “He stood me upright. I know I had nothing. I had no experience, nothing to put forth for this project, except for my yes.”
Nine years later, Rose has nine awards in her office for being one of the top 50 businesswomen in the Tampa Bay area. The practice for which she serves as CEO — the St. Francis Sleep, Allergy and Lung Institute — is a thriving business that offers patients top-quality health care and conducts high-level clinical research.
The St. Francis Institute is remarkable for more than being a successful solo practice in an age of large corporate doctor groups. One of the first things patients and visitors notice when they enter the facility is the beautiful chapel near the main entrance.
“I personally don’t know of another doctor’s office that has a chapel in it,” said Rose.
Not many medical facilities — even those named for Catholic saints — have a Divine Mercy image in every patient’s room, a lending library of spiritual books, a huge watercolor painting of Blessed Mother Teresa in the foyer, or a large bowl of rosaries in the reception area. It’s also a safe bet that few physicians hand out green scapulars or pray with their patients.
“You are not wondering what kind of environment you’re in when you’re in the practice. It becomes very clear when you walk in the front door,” said Linda Platides, a retired registered nurse who, as one of several “apostolic intercessors,” regularly visits the practice’s chapel to pray for the staff and patients.
“I totally believe in their mission,” Platides said.
Physical and spiritual
Frank and Rose Averill, members of Legatus’ Tampa Bay Chapter, speak of their practice having two bottom lines: financial and spiritual.
“We take both equally seriously,” said Frank, who specializes in pulmonary and critical care medicine, sleep medicine, weight management, allergy and immunology. He has repeatedly been listed as one of the top doctors in the United States. He graduated from New York Medical College, trained at Cleveland Clinic, completed multiple fellowships at John Hopkins University and holds multiple board certifications.
Frank was already a successful physician 10 years ago, but he felt a growing dissatisfaction with the secularization of medicine and the health care industry’s heavy focus on monetary profit instead of patients’ physical and spiritual well-being.
“I spoke with Rose about it,” he said. “We sort of decided that the best option was to really live out what I felt we were being called to do.”
Around the same time, Rose had come to the realization that she and Frank needed to do something different. She described praying in a Franciscan retreat house in Tampa, trying to understand the new direction God had put in her heart. As she left the chapel and walked down the hallway, her prayers were answered.
Rose said she received a locution where she heard God’s voice tell her, “Create a living template for the soul at work.”
Said Rose, “I just sort of stammered, ‘Lord, I don’t understand. How me, Lord? If this is truly of you and truly what you want of me, you’re going to have to put this in front of me in black and white.’”
At that moment, in the retreat house’s gift shop, her eyes caught the title of a book about faith in the workplace.
“God literally put it in front of me in black and white,” she said.
Frank and Rose mortgaged their home and invested their savings to buy the building, acquire the necessary equipment and hire staff. While working to make sure the practice was financially sustainable, they also sought to establish a distinctively Christian culture.
“Over time, it’s evolved into a Catholic practice as we’ve become more courageous to step out and do that,” Frank said. “And interestingly, it’s been received phenomenally by people of all faiths, which is really quite astounding.”
Richard Fulk, a patient of Dr. Averill for eight years, said the practice has a “very comfortable” environment. “There is nothing sterile about it,” he added.
Rose, who along with Frank is a secular Franciscan, noted the Franciscan tau cross is incorporated into the practice’s emblem. Even though some people told them that they would have to eliminate their practice’s strong Catholic component, the Averills have pressed on.
The entire staff gathers in the chapel every morning at 8:30 a.m. They recite the Prayer of St. Francis and go over the practice’s founding values before discussing the day’s logistics. They then read the daily Mass readings and end with a prayer.
“That’s how we start every morning,” said Rose, who could only recount one instance where a patient said he was offended. That patient vowed he would never come back after seeing the Divine Mercy image. By the end of his visit, however, the man scheduled another appointment.
“He said he didn’t understand it, but he said, ‘There’s something special here, and I want to be a patient here,’” Rose explained.
Cesar Fernandez, chief operating officer and director of finance, said the practice has a “higher purpose” than any other business where he has worked. “There really is a spiritual emphasis here that is at the root and the foundation of this practice,” he said.
Rose added that she and Frank are planning to create a food pantry for needy patients and employees. They are also planning an Italian pilgrimage for medical professionals and a staff mission trip to Belize.
Frank, who described having a powerful conversion experience in the waters of Lourdes, France, a few years ago that empowered him to become a daily Mass-attending Catholic, said the practice succeeds when he is completely in tune with his spiritual life.
“And it resonates better with the patients and it resonates better with the employees,” he said.
BRIAN FRAGA is a Legatus magazine staff writer.
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