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Early lessons in giving sparked a life calling

When Douglas Della Pietra was a boy in the 1970s, his parents decided to give their stove to a struggling family living down the street in Pittsford. Dropping off gifts at a hospitality house and doing chores for the needy were other ways his parents showed him and his three younger brothers how to give back.

“It was just kind of a natural part of our family that we were always looking for opportunities to help and support other people,” said Della Pietra, director of customer services and volunteers at Rochester General Hospital and a Fairport resident. “And so I think that really seared itself into my heart and life.”

Attending Catholic school also helped volunteerism become second nature to him.

“So there was always some element of community service and working with others either in a group for the benefit of a cause or picking something that I … needed to somehow do as part of my education,” he said.

Mentors during adolescence, including the leader of a youth group Della Pietra joined during the summer between his junior and senior years in high school, helped him deepen an interest in altruism.

As an undergraduate at St. John Fisher College, Della Pietra began volunteering as a youth minister at Fairport-based St. John of Rochester, where he has worshipped since childhood. He then delved further into religious studies, earning a master’s degree in divinity at the University of Toronto School of Theology.

In 2000, the allure of human service led Della Pietra to St. Mary’s Church in Canandaigua, where he became associate pastor and rolled out a volunteer health care chaplain program serving facilities across 200 square miles. A few years later, he began teaching courses on medical ethics, morality in business and other topics at Fisher.

At RGH, Della Pietra’s accomplishments include revamping the student-volunteer internship program and designing a course that encourages the hospital’s volunteers to think of themselves as caregivers.

“This (is) really a course to help build awareness and kind of look through the eyes of patients and their families, as opposed to just saying, ‘Oh, we know what people need,’” said Della Pietra, who oversees 600 volunteers ranging from ages 14 to 98.

Well-trained hospital volunteers can do far more than escort patients in wheelchairs, he added.

“In making a heart-to-heart connection, it really can help people decrease anxiety, decrease fear, build trust, build confidence,” he said. “And those are critical pieces in the healing process.”

At RGH, Della Pietra also launched the hospital’s first Patient and Family Advisory Council, a forum for patients, family members and hospital staff to discuss and prioritize issues affecting care satisfaction.

“This had been an idea of Doug’s for quite a while, and he had to get everybody at the hospital on board and behind it,” said Karel Shapiro, the council’s co-chair.

Since its inception, the council has made strides to improve how the hospital staff communicates with family members following a grievance, Shapiro said. At the council’s urging, the staff now uses the whiteboards in patients’ rooms to spell out recovery goals, such as how often to get out of bed to walk and how far.

“It gives the patient the feeling of satisfaction that they’re doing something for their care,” she said.

Della Pietra’s sincerity has given the council momentum, said Vicki Jagodowski, interim director of nursing at RGH and a council member.

“No matter what you have to say, he acts like he really cares,” said Jagodowski, who met Della Pietra in 2008.

She added: “Not only does he listen, he never gets defensive about anything.”

Sheila Livadas is a Rochester-area freelance writer.

3/18/2016 (c) 2016 Health Care Achievement Awards Special Section. Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email rbj@rbj.net.

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