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Dawn Victor, a chaplain at Memorial Medical Center, visits with patient Melanie Tobias.
By Justin L. Fowler | SJ-R
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Making a spiritual connection
By Steven Spearie

Wearing a head scarf and clutching a prayer shawl, Melanie Tobias lights up when Dawn Victor enters her hospital room.

"I brought you something," says Victor, a Memorial Medical Center chaplain, smiling. "Can you guess what it is?"

Three years ago, the two women bonded over soft peppermint candy. Now, Tobias, terminally ill with hepatitis C and cirrhosis, faces transitioning to a facility closer to family in St. Louis and possible separation from her daughters in Petersburg.

Talk between the two runs from hospital care to Tobias' confession that she's always wanted to see the Northern Lights, part of her "bucket list," she says.

At the end of the visit, Victor and Tobias, along with Tobias' mother, Verneal Barlow of St. Louis, join hands in prayer.

"Gracious, loving God," Victor begins, "you are the divine physician ... Help Melanie feel your peace and calm."

"I always ask for Dawn," admits Tobias later. "I feel God through her.

"There have been happy times and sad times. We've laughed together and we've cried together."

Down a few floors at the hospital, Julie Jones is meeting with members of the Garten family from Shipshewana, Ind. Jones is making sure John Garten is eating right, taking his medicine and getting enough sleep.

Days before, Sue Garten, John's wife, was involved in a serious car accident on Illinois Route 136, driving an escort car in front of a truck driven by John. Suffering a broken arm and four broken ribs, a torn aorta and diaphragm and collapsed lungs, Jones recalls a doctor calling it a "lethal" situation.

Jones was in the emergency room to meet John Garten.

"She more or less comforted me and stayed with me," he says, appreciatively. "If I was here by myself, I don't know what would have happened. They're very, very nice people."

"I'm there," says Jones, another of Memorial's chaplains, "to be with family, to body God through the process, whether it's with a glass of water or a warm blanket.

"It's being present with people."

Chaplains at Memorial and St. John's Hospital in Springfield play critical roles at some of the most vulnerable times, literally life-and-death situations. Chaplains can be counted on to comfort patients and their families as well as staff personnel - doctors and nurses - with the spiritual component of a holistic philosophy that also includes physical and mental health care.

While chaplains are now commonplace in hospitals - both Memorial and St. John's have chaplains physically present 24 hours a day, seven days a week - many say the profession has matured only in the last three or four decades, now requiring advanced degrees, such as a master's in divinity, certification in pastoral care and clinical internships. 

It is often an intense job that requires empathy, a keen listening ear and an ability to adapt.

"Religious people say to me, 'I don't know how you do what you do every day,'" says Greg Stafford, director of Memorial's Pastoral Care Department.

"Before each work day," says Sister Maira Barry, O.P., a Springfield Dominican and a staff chaplain at St. John's, "I'll spend time before the Blessed Sacrament asking for the wisdom of God to give me the right words to say or to be that listening person."

The Rev. Larry Hanson was ordained in the United Methodist Church before founding Grace Community Fellowship, a nondenominational church in Buffalo, nine years ago. With a background as a volunteer firefighter and an emergency medical technician before coming to St. John's two years ago, Hanson says his dual role as pastor and chaplain have played well off each other.

"As a chaplain, I see how fragile life is," says Hanson. "It's created a little more urgency for me as a local pastor to help people get their lives together."

Hanson, like other chaplains, ministers to patients and families from a variety of faith backgrounds, including burgeoning numbers from faith communities, such as Hindu and Muslim, that were underrepresented in the Springfield area not so long ago.

"One of the things asked of me was, 'Can you minister to people of different faiths?' The idea," says Hanson, "is not to get people to believe what I believe, but to get people connected to what they believe.

"My job is to be that anchor chain."

"It's challenged me to broaden my view of God," says Julie Jones of her encounters with people of different faiths. "I was born and grew up in the same tradition (the Reformed Church in America.) People find comfort in things I don't, and I have to honor that."

Adds Greg Stafford:

"I am Southern Baptist and proud to be Southern Baptist. But if I just participated (in the job) as Southern Baptist, I would miss the richness of ministry to others.

"It's broadened me in my understanding of the holy, the sacred."Surrounded by family, including his son, Rick, John Garten is recounting some of his wife Sue's other brushes with death: another serious car accident in 1984 and a brain aneurysm in 2007.

"I can't understand for the life of me," he says, "why she has to go through this."

"This is hard to understand," says Julie Jones, "why bad things happen to good people, someone like Sue."

Chaplains are often confronted with having to explain why God permits pain or accidents. Such experiences elicit different reactions, says Memorial's Dawn Victor.

"I've had people who are angry God would let this happen and turn their backs on God," she says. "Others are angry, yet it strengthens their faith and they turn to God.

"When people ask the question, 'Why is this happening?' I'll respond, 'I don't have the answers, but I can sit here and ponder it with you.' " The Rev. Larry Hanson says with his church members at Grace Community Fellowship he's trying to develop long-term relationships. At the hospital, his encounter with a patient might last 15 minutes, and he may never see him or her again.

But at critical times, the face of a chaplain might be just what that patient or family needs, says Sister Maira Barry, a former educator.

"Sometimes you are a stranger walking into a room or a stranger meeting the family," she says. "They're a stranger also. In those instances, a stranger meets a stranger with compassion. You trust the intuitive gifts God gives you."

It's not unusual for Hanson to be holding someone's hand at 3 a.m., either on a pre-arranged visit or a random encounter.

"One of the privileges of being a chaplain," he says, "is that I can essentially walk into any room. I can initiate visits."

Greg Stafford says in the Southern Baptist denomination, he could have gone a number of different ways professionally: pastor, evangelist, missionary, religious educator or counselor. In some sense as a chaplain at Memorial, he says he's all of those things.

"We have one of the largest churches right here," Stafford says. "The opportunity for ministry is pretty large."

 

Story published Friday, November 5, 2010 ( Volume 5, Number 6 )

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