People recovering from serious injuries, strokes, life-changing illnesses, and catastrophic accidents often need more than just physical rehabilitation.
Their spirits also need to be uplifted. That is an important insight the staff at Madonna Rehabilitation Hospitals in Nebraska understands infinitely well.
Rehab involves much more than physical adjustment
“Our patients and our families are sometimes struggling to understand the reason for their condition, not only just the physical aspects of it,” said Paul Dongilli Jr., the president and CEO of Madonna Rehabilitation Hospitals.
Dongilli, a speech pathologist by training who is a member of Legatus’ Lincoln Chapter, said people come from 24 different states, as far away as Alaska and Washington State, to be treated at one of Madonna Rehabilitation Hospitals’ two locations, in Omaha and Lincoln.
Physicians and nurses in those other states often refer their patients to Madonna because of the cutting-edge, first-rate rehabilitative care that is matched by the psycho-social and spiritual care offered at the facilities.
“When those individuals are paired with our social workers and our psychologists, they’re able to deal with the psycho- social aspects of a devastating injury or illness,” said Dongilli, who has been with Madonna since 1983.
Whereas most hospitals and care centers have small rehabilitation units on-site, Dongilli said Madonna Rehabilitation Hospitals are one of the only, if not the lone, freestanding Catholic rehabilitation facilities in the country.
“We’re not part of a larger acute care system, and in most acute care systems, rehabilitation is a small part of what they do,” Dongilli said. “Maybe they don’t invest in the technology and have the resources that are needed to treat patients who have had devastating spinal cord injuries, brain injuries, children as well as adults, where we have, because that’s all we do.”
Founded by Benedictine nuns – with a priest in residence
Benedictine nuns founded Madonna Rehabilitshort-term recovery and room for another 125 individuals who have chronic conditions and require longer-term care. The Omaha facility opened in 2016 and has room for 110 patients.
The facilities today are sponsored by the Diocese of Lincoln, Nebraska, and they retain a distinctive Catholic identity.
Madonna has a Catholic priest in residence, and offers daily Mass and access to the sacraments for patients, their families, and staff. Both locations have beautiful chapels and sacred art throughout the facilities.
“When you come into the facility, the look is such we think that it reinforces that Catholic identity,” Dongilli said, adding that spiritual care is offered for people of different religious and denominational backgrounds.
Patients come from afar
From its beginnings 60 years ago, Dongilli said Madonna Rehabilitation Hospitals has evolved into a health care system that serves patients from around the country, primarily from an eight-state region in the Midwest.
“When individuals and their families are faced with these horrific injuries and they’re looking for a facility to help them, in most areas they’re told that they don’t have those resources,” Dongilli said, adding that trauma centers in other states that work with Madonna are quick to refer their patients to the Nebraska facilities.
“So people are willing to travel to access a resource that they can’t get in their immediate community,” Dongilli said.
Madonna has a dedicated pediatric unit and long-term care for patients who require ventilators. The staff specializes in complex medical, traumatic brain injury, spinal cord injury, pulmonary conditions, severe stroke, other neurological conditions, and pediatric rehabilitation.
Offering hope, spiritual recovery
Dongilli, who worked in Madonna’s brain injury and stroke units and worked his way up to chief operating officer and then CEO three years ago, said Madonna offers hope and healing to thousands of patients every year.
“What we provide is a more holistic approach to care, balancing the more physical aspects of medicine, nursing, and therapy with more of the psycho-social and spiritual aspects of recovery,” he said.
In addition to the chapel, Dongilli said Madonna has a large therapy gym and carefully manicured grounds that contribute to the peaceful, spiritual, and mentally healing atmosphere.
“We have been very careful over the years to have green space and nature and some beautiful settings that are part of God’s creation that our families and our patients can access to have some quiet time or for reflection,” Dongilli said. “Those things, we think, very much make a difference and aid in the recovery process. It helps provide hope.”
In addition to focusing on the mental and spiritual healing, Madonna’s team of specialized physiatrists, hospitalists, therapists, rehabilitation nurses, clinicians, and researchers work with advanced technology and equipment to help each patient achieve the highest level of independence possible.
Research institute developing new technologies
Dongilli said Madonna has “a small but mighty” research institute that has been successful in developing technology to support rehabilitation efforts, and added that the technology is now being commercialized and sold to other health care facilities in the United States and abroad.
“We think we have the opportunity now in working with the University of Nebraska to expand our research efforts and develop equipment and technology that will help advance the field of rehabilitation and the outcomes of the patients that we serve,” Dongilli said.
Dongilli added that Madonna started a department to train physicians, and recently accepted the first group of residents from the University of Nebraska’s College of Medicine who will be trained in physical medicine and rehabilitation.
“I think what the future holds for us is to be a regional center, not only for the treatment of patients, but also a training facility for physicians and other professionals specializing in rehabilitation,” Dongilli said.
Founded with Mary’s blessing
The founding Benedictine Sisters named the facility after the Madonna because 1958 was a Marian year, said Dongilli.
“They had a vision that if individuals could have good nursing care and therapy care, that folks who previously had to be institutionalized could return back to their homes and to their communities,” Dongilli said. “They really established a vision for rehabilitation. They recognized the blessings that Mary would provide for their efforts and for hopefully sustaining the hospital and the facility.”
Despite changes in medicine and technology over the decades, Dongilli said Madonna’s core philosophy remains the same.
“That notion of doing God’s work, a vision for doing rehabilitation under the guidance of the Blessed Mother, has really been a core tenet for us,” he said.
BRIAN FRAGA is a Legatus magazine staff writer.