Dr. Steven Ivy: The Unflappable Consoler-In-Chief

The job title he carried with him on his IU Health business cards was long, complicated and convoluted: Steven Ivy, M.Div., PhD, senior vice president, values, ethics, social responsibility and pastoral services.

That title was way too fancy for a guy like Steven Ivy, who grew up the son of a pastor of small town churches that dotted the hills of western Kentucky and Tennessee.

Too elaborate for the man Judge Sarah Evans Barker calls the "Consoler-In-Chief" for the IU Health board of directors.

Too decorative for the colleague IU Health Chief of Staff Steven Wantz characterizes as a "steadfast friend" to the organization.

Too fancy even for Dr. Ivy himself who, as he whisked through the halls of IU Health Methodist Hospital last week pondering his final days with the organization, chuckled at that title.

"So I came here nearly 17 years ago for this very, very strange title," he said. "And it's been wonderful."

What Dr. Ivy really means -- anyone who knows him knows what he really means -- is that business card title was just that, a title.  Dr. Ivy took his job much more literally and personal.

He saw his job as wrapping all of those -- the ethics and values, the social responsibility and the pastoral services -- into one much simpler mission.

"This organization has, at its heart, a commitment of holistic care to patients and staff wholeness. We've always had that. We've always intended that," Dr. Ivy said. "So I do my best to have everyone pay attention to that, help everyone be aware of that. Are the decisions we are making as an executive team leading us closer to whole patient care or further away?"

And as he works his final days at IU Health, retiring this month, Dr. Ivy didn't hesitate when asked what one piece of advice he would leave for young, incoming doctors.

"If I could say one thing to young physicians, it is this," Dr. Ivy said. "The only way to care for a patient is to care for a patient."

Doctors often get caught up in the technology of the medical world today. They get pulled in all directions in the fast-paced blur of a hospital setting.

"I think for young physicians to focus on that particular patient they have at that moment in time and to give that person their full, compassionate attention," Dr. Ivy said. "I think that would resolve almost every other ethical challenge there is."

And even without a direct, hands-on role of caring for patients throughout his career at IU Health, Dr. Ivy has found a way to live out his very own advice.


He thought he would be a pastor for life. Dr. Ivy is clergy by profession with a Master of Divinity degree. It was an internship, though, that guided him to hospital ministry.

While doing his graduate theological studies at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., Dr. Ivy focused his field education in a hospital.

"And I discovered I loved that ministry," Dr. Ivy said.

In fact, most of his 40+ year career has been in hospital ministry. Before coming to IU Health, Dr. Ivy was at Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas, serving nine years as director of chaplaincy and ethics.

Judge Barker, who is on the board of directors at IU Health, believes that pastoral background has been key in Dr. Ivy's success, even if she likes to get a little teasing in first.

"For a Baptist, he's a really good guy," she said, with a laugh. "He has a pastoral way, of course, and it is one of his nicest qualities. But it's a deeper, broader sort of pastoral role."

Dr. Ivy is known as the Philosopher-In-Chief and Consoler-In-Chief, she said.

"We could always count on him, with the ebbs and flows of the hospitals, to be able to steady the ship," she said. "He knows what goes on in our hospitals at every level."

And, Judge Barker said, Dr. Ivy also has been an unbelievably calming presence.

"He's pretty unflappable," she said. "He knows the sun's going to come up in the morning and he conveys that to people."


Being unflappable could have been a job requirement for Dr. Ivy's role. As leader of values and ethics for IU Health, he's often found himself facing some controversial waters.

There, of course, are times when doctors are caring for patients who have requests they aren't quite sure how to handle. Dr. Ivy gives the example of a patient who is a Jehovah's Witness who doesn't believe in blood transfusions.

"If physicians are wondering, if they are uncomfortable with that particular request, they would frequently consult with the ethics team," Dr. Ivy said. "It can be complicated."

How to ethically deal with the financial concerns for Amish and Mennonite patients, who don't have public or private insurance, is another example.

"How do we fairly and ethically engage those friends from a business perspective?" Dr. Ivy said. "That becomes an ethical question."

And then there are the patients coming from foreign countries to be treated at IU Health.

"How do we ensure their religious beliefs, their ethical beliefs are met while at the same time not compromising our ethical beliefs?" Dr. Ivy said. "Sometimes, there can be differences there."

Right from the start, Dr. Ivy went to work finding ways to address such issues at IU Health, writing a grant to establish an ethics center shortly after he arrived in Indianapolis. Not long after that, the Charles Warren Fairbanks Center for Medical Ethics opened inside Methodist Hospital.

It's a nationally recognized center, unique for its connection to a hospital rather than a university. It's made a huge difference, Dr. Ivy said, through its educational and clinical service programs. It has been the place to turn when there are difficult choices to be made that have ethical implications.

"When patients' families have to make decisions about removing life support, about aggressive therapies, to make sure those patients and families have the support they need to think ethically about what's right here," Dr. Ivy said. "To make sure that our policies and procedures align with what is considered ethical medicine and to ensure that when our staff has ethical conflicts that those conflicts are considered and the staff are helped to deal with them."

Dr. Ivy considers the ethics center his greatest legacy at IU Health. But he also has left plenty of other marks, one of them being his connection to every worker in the system from the executive team down, said Wantz.

"Steve always addressed colleagues and team members as friends," Wantz said. "He has been a steadfast friend to all those responsible for providing care to our patients, consistent with our mission and values."

And Dr. Ivy has added touches, with little fanfare, to IU Health -- like helping design hospital chapels that are welcome to all faiths and religions, with things such as Muslim prayer rugs, and Jewish and Buddhist banners.

And, one of his favorite marks, a path Dr. Ivy blazed himself.


Prayer paths. They adorn the grounds of Methodist, Riley Hospital for Children and other IU Health campuses in the state. They are the brainchild of Dr. Ivy.

The paths are an ancient practice introduced in the Middle Ages when Christians were supposed to do pilgrimages to either Jerusalem or Rome. For those who were too sick to make the official trek, prayer paths were created within cathedrals so people could walk these paths and count it as their pilgrimage.

"It's been resurrected as a way of devotion and many hospitals have seen them as a way for patients, families and staff to find quiet places for retreat," Dr. Ivy said, as he stood on the Methodist prayer labyrinth, designed after a path at a cathedral in France.

The winding layout of the path is designed to put those who use it into a meditative mode as it leads them to an inner circle. Once there, those walking the path are to pause and leave their worries right there.

Dr. Ivy uses the prayer paths, which he says are an important part of his spiritual discipline.

"They are a  part of what keeps me whole," he said.


So why is Dr. Ivy retiring? For IU Health, he believed it was time for different leadership in his position. For himself, it was time to take a break.

"I've been in ministry 40 years. At least I deserve some sabbatical time," Dr. Ivy said. "I may be retiring to do more recreation, more volunteer ministry. I may be retiring to do further ministry at some point. I don't know that yet."

He's been teaching at the Christian Theological Seminary and will continue that, at least one class each semester.

"So that will kind of help me organize my life and have one place to get to every week," he said. "How that then evolves over time, we shall see."

For now, he's focusing on December, a big month for Dr. Ivy. His official retirement takes place this month, with a reception Dec. 20 at Fairbanks Hall. On Dec. 23, he will turn 64 years old. And on Dec. 27, he and his wife, Karen, will celebrate 43 years of marriage.

Quick sidenote, a piece of advice from Dr. Ivy on making a marriage last: "Learning to forgive. If you can learn to forgive you can have a good longlasting marriage," he said. "If not, it ain't gonna work."

The Ivys have two adult daughters, three grandchildren and a fourth on the way in February. With retirement, there will be more time to spend with them.

But as he does, Dr. Ivy says he will look back on his career with fondness.

"It's been a wonderfully, varied career," he said. "I've often said it's the kind of thing where I would get bored doing one thing and then I could go do something else for a while and make someone else happy. So, it's been a delightful 17 years at this."

-- By Dana Benbow, Senior Journalist at IU Health.
  Reach Benbow via email dbenbow@iuhealth.org or on Twitter @danabenbow.

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