Reflecting on the Moment Some Clear Lessons Taken from Health System’s Handling of ‘The Window’

It’s called the ‘Incident Command System.’

And, as the name suggests, it was developed by administrators with the Sisters of Providence Health System (SPHS) to coordinate responses to the media, the community, and employees after, well, incidents. Created in the months after 9/11, it was put in place with events involving national security, extreme weather, and other types of disasters clearly in mind.

It’s doubtful that the designers of the system were thinking about someone seeing an apparition of the Virgin Mary in a window on the Mercy Medical Center campus — and the aftermath of such a sighting — when they put things down on paper, but they would be happy to know that it worked just fine for such an occurrence.

Indeed, those involved with marketing, public relations, and community outreach for SPHS referred to the incident-response blueprint early and often during an intense two-week period that began in the late morning on Sept. 30, when William Batista, sitting in his van and having a cigarette while waiting to pick up a friend after a doctor’s appointment, saw what he thought was an image of the Virgin Mary — and others believed was Our Lady of Guadalupe — in a window of a medical office building at 300 Stafford St.

Batista called a few people to tell them about what he saw, and when they came, they called some more people, and before long there were hundreds gathered to look, kneel, pray, sing, leave behind flowers, and later tell more people about what they saw. Some held up sick children in front of the window, in search of some kind of miracle.

People came at all hours of the day, and often from well beyond the boundaries of the 413 area code. They represented every demographic group imaginable, and, for the most part, they were very well-behaved.

The speed with which this crowd grew provided more evidence of how technology is changing the world — and marketing, said Mark Fulco, senior vice president of Strategy and Marketing for SPHS, adding that this is one of many practical lessons to be gleaned from The Window and how the system responded to the incident.

“One of our big takeaways from all this is to never, ever underestimate the power of word-of-mouth marketing,” said Fulco, recalling that first day and how the number of people gathered to look at the window grew from a few to a few hundred in a matter of several minutes. “Because of the technology, including cell phones and the Internet, the message spread so quickly; there was an almost immediate viral impact.”

There were many other lessons, or take-aways, he said, involving everything from media relations to interfacing with a demographically diverse regional population; from coping with and taking full advantage of that aforementioned technology to practicing extreme sensitivity when it comes to matters involving faith and science.

Indeed, while talking about the ‘image’ seen in the window, Mercy administrators would be very careful with the language they employed; there would no official use of the words ‘miracle’ or ‘miraculous,’ but, likewise, they didn’t discourage anyone who chose to partake in such terminology, and there were many who did.

This was all part of what became a very delicate balancing act for a Catholic hospital that touts the importance of faith and speaks proudly of a mission set down more than a century ago by a founding group of nuns, but also markets itself as a facility on the cutting edge of medical science.

Overall, ‘something’ and ‘humbling’ became the unofficial watchwords for this fortnight. The former was used then — and is still used today — by SPHS officials to describe what they saw. Meanwhile, the latter was, and is still, used by those same officials to describe the sheer power of faith that they observed.

“There’s no guidebook to lead you in a situation like this,” said Fulco, joking that he could now write one. “Our values directed us in terms of the most appropriate way to respond to the situation, and we used our good judgment, good management skills, and instincts to guide us.”

The commotion over the window has subsided — although the media still calls occasionally (Fulco said there was renewed interest lately when there was a reported sighting of the Virgin Mary on an image from an MRI taken in Florida). Using the benefit of a few months’ perspective, some of those at Mercy talked to The Healthcare News about what is now referred to simply as ‘The Window,’ what they saw, what they learned, and how it still impacts them today.

Pane and Simple

Fulco said he was just leaving his regular Tuesday staff meeting when he received a call on his cell phone from Sr. Kathleen Sullivan, RSM, senior vice president of Mission for SPHS. There was something in her tone of voice that told him that what had been a quiet day would soon be anything but.

“She asked me to meet her at the back of the medical office building; there was something I needed to see,” he recalled. “She said, ‘someone has seen an apparition of the Virgin Mary and I need you to come over right away.’”

Fulco remembers asking Mary Orr, communications and media specialist for SPHS, to come with him. “I said, ‘I might need your help on this.’”

He was right; neither, it would soon become apparent, was fully prepared for what they would see — in the window or in the moments, hours, and days to come.

“There were only a few people there when we arrived,” Fulco recalled. “There were a few staff people from the 300 Stafford St. building who worked with the physicians, and Sr. Kathleen was there. She pointed up to the window and said, ‘that’s where the patient saw what he believes is an image of the Virgin Mary.’”

At first, Fulco couldn’t see anything. “That’s because of the angle I was at and where I was standing,” he explained. “Sr. Kathleen said, ‘walk over here with me.’ When we did, she said, ‘see anything now?’

“I don’t think I had any words at that point,” he recalled. “But I was amazed at what clearly looked like some type of image … it looked to me like the outline of a person with a veil on.”

Fulco quickly grasped the significance of what was happening, even if he didn’t fully understand yet that he was about to lose control of his time and his schedule for the foreseeable future. This fate became clear when people started showing up to gaze up at what would fast become the most famous window in Springfield — and even more abundantly clear when the media started arriving to record what was happening.

“Within five minutes of us arriving there, people started to come to see it,” he explained. “The gentleman who saw it got out of his van, looked at the window, and couldn’t believe his eyes. He went into the building and asked someone to come outside and look; he said, ‘tell me if I’m seeing things, tell me if I’m imagining things. Is there something in this window?’

“That person then went back inside, told some more people, and from there, word just spread,” he said, adding that one of those spreading the word called one of the local TV stations. “Within 10 minutes, people from outside the hospital community started coming.”

Like Fulco, Orr said she was amazed at how quickly the crowd under the window grew.

“It just snowballed,” she recalled. “Very quickly, it went from a handful of people to a crowd. And the media were here almost immediately.”

Fulco and Orr would soon be counting as many as a half-dozen so-called ‘live trucks’ — those used by television stations to send live feeds — on the site at one time. And they would find themselves answering questions before a sea of microphones, several bearing the call letters of stations in Boston, Hartford, and New Haven.

As the curious and the media started to gather, officials at Mercy began to mobilize (a word Fulco would use often), and develop what he described as a “coordinated response” to what was happening.

This would be a plan that would include consultation with — and constant updates for — senior management, as well as communication to the public, the media, employees, and the Archdiocese of Springfield, which was contacted within minutes after Batista first saw the image.

Coordinating such a response is all part of the Incident Command System, said Fulco, noting that this was a non-medical, non-hazardous-materials incident — and thus it did not involve medical personnel to any great degree — but nonetheless one that required a well-thought-out plan, the effectiveness of which could ultimately be measured, using mostly qualitative analysis.

“By all accounts, we responded extremely well from the standpoints of safety, traffic, interacting with the Springfield Police Department, interacting with the media, internal operations, and more,” he told The Healthcare News. “This was a good case where we could say that, yes, the things we drilled for, the things we worked on, development of those systems, and the practice we acquired really helped us navigate this particular situation.”

Still, in many ways, Fulco and his team were in uncharted waters, and without a script to follow, they essentially wrote their own.

Glass Act

From the beginning, those with Mercy and the SPHS refrained from giving their own opinions about what they saw in the window — using that pliable term something as they did so — and instead focused on what others were saying, and trying to put that in some kind of perspective. They didn’t say it was the Virgin Mary, but neither did they say it was likely the result of condensation or some other scientific explanation.

“We didn’t, because we didn’t know what it was — and we still don’t know,” said Fulco.

Early on, Sullivan told the local newspaper: “what it is I don’t know, but it was certainly humbling to see the faith of the people.” Later, she would differentiate between the Virgin Mary and Our Lady of Guadalupe, for example, and talk at length about other contextual matters.

In many ways, Sullivan became a liaison between the crowd (and sometimes the media) and the hospital, Orr explained, adding that she would often stand with visitors, generate conversation, and answer questions. “She had a real calming effect.”

The crowd was orderly, said Fulco, who noted that there was a steady flow of visitors, and the hospital rerouted traffic, worked with the neighboring Sacred Heart church to arrange parking for viewers there, and cordoned off an area to keep visitors safe and maintain business as usual to the extent that this was possible.

“People would come, they would watch, and then they would leave, and we encouraged that,” said Fulco, noting that crowd control was one of the system’s first priorities. “Some people wanted to pay tribute and leave things, and we found a very safe way to make that happen. And we set up an area for all this once we understood that this would continue and that it would be a 24/7 thing.”

But beyond traffic and crowd control, there were many other logistical and practical matters to be considered, said Fulco, adding that he and his team would rely on the incident-response system, as well as those aforementioned instincts, to guide them.

Other considerations included making sure this wasn’t some kind of hoax, keeping the window safe from vandalism, enabling the physicians group waiting to move into the office where the window was located to move ahead with its plans, and trying to provide the community and the media with some kind of answer as to what it was people were seeing in this window.

A hoax was quickly ruled out, said Fulco, noting that the image wasn’t on either of the two panes of glass that formed the window, but rather between them. As for keeping the window safe, there was only one episode that even approached vandalism — a crew from an out-of-town television station dressed as window washers actually put a ladder against the building and were preparing to ascend for what would later be described as a YouTube-like stunt when they were dissuaded from doing so by Sullivan and others.

As for the media, coverage was extensive, truly global (thanks largely to wire service reports), and generally respectful to both the health care system and the crowds gathered to see the window, said Fulco, adding that while there was always the possibility that some coverage could have turned negative for the hospital, this didn’t happen.

“There are a few media outlets where their modus operandi is to be edgy and controversial, and fill their venue with mockery,” he explained. “There was one shock jock I recall who was starting to say something, and his partner stopped him and said, ‘don’t go there.’”

Eventually, administrators at Mercy decided to have the window examined by experts to see if a scientific explanation could be found. The language used to describe the results of that analysis was reflective of that used throughout the two-week episode.

“They (experts) did identify what is quite possibly a deposit between the two panes of glass,” Fulco told the local paper. “There is likely a scientific explanation for how the deposit physically accumulated on the inside surface of the glass.”

He said the same thing to The Healthcare News, but added, “they think there’s a scientific explanation for it, but they’ve never seen anything quite like this; it’s a very atypical pattern.”

Roughly a week after the initial sighting, Mercy officials decide to go ahead with their plans to remove and replace the window — a seal had failed, allowing air and moisture between the panes of glass. But, again, there was great sensitivity expressed by the system as it proceeded with that operation, giving plenty of notice that the window was being removed, and a lengthy explanation why.

“There was renovation going on in that office for a new tenant,” he explained, adding that replacement of the window was part of this equation. “And we determined that we had to get that office ready — the practice needed to see patients, and they needed to have their business on line in a timely fashion. In addition, we were concerned about the ongoing security issues, and the unbudgeted expenses we were incurring.”

The window has been gone for more than two months now, but it is certainly not forgotten, and won’t be for some time — if ever.

Indeed, in a year filled with mostly negative coverage about the economy, natural disasters, and an historic presidential election, ‘The Window’ seems destined to make many local ‘top-stories’ lists for 2008 because of the way the incident captured the attention and the imagination of the region.

Fulco and Orr said they are continuously being asked about the window and their experiences with it. What they tell people is that it was an intense, somewhat gratifying learning experience, a good test of the incident-command system, and, quite simply, something they won’t ever forget.

“That was a difficult period for a lot of people … the stock market was collapsing, the economy was in turmoil, there was the election, and a lot of uncertainty about the future; there wasn’t a lot of good stuff happening,” Fulco recalled. “This gave people some rays of hope. It made a lot of people feel better, and we let them enjoy the moment.”

Said Orr, “what was amazing to me was seeing people who didn’t know each other come together like that and embrace something. It truly was humbling to see the power of faith like that. It’s a sight I never thought I’d see.”

Window on the World

When asked where the window is at this time, Fulco, sounding like that bureaucrat at the end of the first Indiana Jones movie when talking about the Ark of the Covenant, said, “it’s in a safe, secure place.”

The actual location won’t be disclosed, he told The Healthcare News, but when something definitive is known about what exactly it was that people saw in the window, that will be disclosed.

That’s part of being responsive and sensitive to the fact that, in such a situation, there are more questions than answers, and answers are what people need.

“We have a phenomenon on our hands,” he said, stressing use of the present tense as he spoke.

A phenomenon that has provided no shortage of practical lessons.

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