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Health chief’s test of faith

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Becoming a Catholic in 1992, Jim Birch AM believes the only time his faith has been truly tested was when he was in the head job at the Women’s and Children’s Hospital (WCH).

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At the time he was involved with overseeing the merger of the Queen Victoria and Adelaide Children’s hospitals to the new WCH, and that meant the latter was inheriting the Termination Pregnancy Service.

As CEO he was under immense pressure from various groups in the community that wanted the new hospital to resist the move – and as a new Catholic he was also somewhat conflicted.

“At the time it was very controversial, with views pretty well split down the middle, with many staff of the Children’s Hospital and some members of the Board,” he told The Southern Cross.

“There was often a view put that on the one hand we’re saving children’s lives and on the other there is the question of terminations.

“I got a lot of personal threats and for me it got a bit nasty.

“But Archbishop Faulkner was really wonderful. He rang me and had a discussion because he’d heard I was getting threats.

“I had only just converted a couple of years previously… but he gave me reassurances. Leonard Faulkner was a wonderful guy who just said that I needed to act on my conscience.”

Jim said he came to the conclusion that he was the CEO of a hospital in the State system, not of the Catholic system, and “it was my job to run the best possible service I could, including if that meant operating a service that undertook terminations of pregnancy”.

“Different people have different views – I dealt with it the way I felt was right, and I’m comfortable with that.”

Joining the Little Company of Mary Health Care Board in 2016 and becoming chair late last year, Jim said he felt blessed that his faith is now nurtured as part of his work.

Calvary has grown enormously since it was established in 1885 by six courageous Sisters of the Little Company of Mary, who sailed from Naples to Sydney on the SS Liguria. Today it operates in six states and territories and has more than 12,000 staff and volunteers serving in its 15 public and private hospitals, 17 retirement and aged care facilities, and a network of community care service centres.

“We’ve got an unbelievable team of people. I am immensely proud of all of our staff and I know firsthand how good our clinicians are. There is a first class group of managers and senior executive leaders,” Jim said, adding that formation is a “really, really important part” of his job.

“At every board meeting we have from 30 minutes to an hour of formation. Our director of Mission guides us through it and it sets the mindset before we undertake the business.

“Maintaining that level of focus on the mission and vision of Mary Potter is critical.”

Jim said Calvary took pride in ensuring the services it provides are “different”.

“We like to think that the spiritual and psychological care we give is special,” he explained.

“It is a form of care to all people irrespective of beliefs and faith.

“And we need to assure ourselves that we are not just running services that anyone else can run… we need to run what I call the very hard services.

“Aged care is a good example as at the moment that’s a really hard service to run with the pandemic. So we must take on the services that are very difficult to deliver.

“Sometimes our mission is to do the things that other people wouldn’t do.”

Besides his involvement at Calvary, Jim is also chair of the Australian Red Cross Blood Service, chair of the Women’s and Children’s Health Network in SA, a director of the Cancer Council SA and involved with the digital company, Clevertar.

By anyone’s standards it has been a meteoric rise through the health system for the young man who dropped out of an architecture degree and started work as a cashier at the Royal Adelaide Hospital.

Taking the advice of a mentor in the Revenue Department who foreshadowed that the health industry was “going to boom”, Jim studied part time for a business degree and was soon rising amongst the ranks in the public health system.

In 2002 at the age of 47 he was appointed to lead the Department of Human Services which covered health, housing, child protection, ageing and disability and had a staff of more than 30,000 people.

“That was the most stressful job I ever had, it was 24/7, 365 days a year,” he recalled.

From 2007 to 2016 he became a partner and the Global Health leader for Ernst and Young and spent most of that time living out of a suitcase and travelling the world.

However, it was one of his first ‘big’ appointments as the CEO of the Whyalla Hospital that brought his faith into focus.

Baptised an Anglican and with a father who was a Freemason, Jim had a religious upbringing but moved away from the church in his late teens.

When he met and married Cate, who is Catholic, in 1979 he agreed their children would be raised in the Church but it wasn’t until they moved to Whyalla in the late 80s that he decided to join the family at Mass at St Teresa’s Church.

There he crossed paths with  the then Fr Eugene Hurley and they formed a friendship where Jim’s faith questions could be asked and answered both at the church and when playing against each other on the squash court or at social events.

“I found Eugene a bit of a unique individual, very charismatic, even handed and just a really great guy. I felt very much welcomed at church and Cate and I also made a number of friends who were Catholic.

“I said to Cate that I should lead by example and do the family thing and become a Catholic but I decided I wouldn’t do it in Whyalla because I didn’t know if I was doing it because of Eugene or because I really wanted to do it.”

So on his return to Adelaide Jim reflected on his motivation, and decided to begin RCIA classes at Tea Tree Gully parish.

“I really enjoyed the program – we had a good group and I was quite questioning,” he laughed.

At Easter 1992 he was welcomed to the Church and the family were associated with the Tea Tree Gully parish for the next 25 years, with Jim also serving on the board of St David’s Parish School. Since moving from the area the couple now divide its time between The Monastery and the Goolwa parish, where they own a holiday home.

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