by Michael P. Murphy
The video is touching to watch. A young boy dressed in a tuxedo walks his mom down the aisle at the opening of the wedding ceremony. Walking is not easy for him as he leans on a cane and holds onto his mom, but together they make it to the front of the chapel, where the minister and his mom’s new husband wait patiently, their faces beaming.
This wedding does not take place in a neighborhood church or a rented hall, but in the chapel of Phoenix Children’s Hospital. The boy is recovering there after receiving a heart transplant.
“It’s a special place,” the new bride declares. “I’m thankful that Phoenix Children’s was able to give my son life, and I’m thankful to the donor. If it weren’t for them he wouldn’t be here, walking me down the aisle.”
Yes, it is a special place. Let me tell you why.
It’s All In the Demeanor
Every Wednesday afternoon I serve as a volunteer at the medical library inside Phoenix Children’s Hospital. As I often walk the halls and stand in elevators while running errands in this very dynamic place, I never stop being impressed knowing that the hospital’s mission is to provide hope, healing, and the absolute best healthcare for children and their families.
As a Christian, the concept of hope is especially intriguing. We all know that hospitals have a chapel, a place to retreat for comfort and prayer, but I have learned that most hospitals have a staffed Pastoral Care department on campus to meet the spiritual needs of families and patients. It’s what hospitals do.
The Pastoral Care department at PCH is outstanding and so are the related programs offered to help grieving families. The hospital has two ordained Christian chaplains on staff:
A veteran in ministry since 1976, Charles Kellim has served as a PCH staff chaplain for 17 years. He is at his best when he is one-on-one with people, which he considers one of his spiritual gifts, making him well suited for spending time with families of critically ill children.
Frank Macias has been at PCH for three years, but he has served in the chaplaincy for 25 years, giving him a keen understanding of the importance of having a Pastoral Care department in a children’s hospital.
When people have a child in the hospital, regardless of how serious or not serious their situation, Charles and Frank understand it is always serious to the families, even for something as routine as a tonsillectomy. They have found that most families believe in God, even those who haven’t had much of a relationship with God, and a chaplain’s prayers are welcomed.
“People come in who are atheists or agnostics, and others ask how we effectively minister to them,” Charles told me. “I tell them the same way we do with everyone else. I’m available to them to meet their needs and help them. If you ask them for prayer, they say, ‘Sure.’ They’re really open to that.”
“It really is an honor and a privilege to stand beside families and their children.”
“Most families are very receptive,” Frank added. “We don’t take anything personal. Families are sometimes distraught, scared. They could be short with the nurses or even us, but we don’t take it personally. We totally understand. We overlook all that because we understand.”
“I think it depends on the chaplain’s demeanor,” Charles said. “We’re not pushy, we don’t impose, but we basically let people know we’re available and what we can do for them if they want us. If they don’t, that’s fine. We don’t have to look very far for people to visit. We could work 24/7 and never see everybody. By and large, even people of different faiths welcome us because of our demeanor. We’ve seen Native Americans, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Mormons, Jehovah Witnesses, and Sikhs. You name it, we see them.”
Jenna Zayatz serves as manager of the Pastoral Care department, which is among her many responsibilities at PCH. Though her background is in Child Life, another hospital discipline, she previously worked extensively with chaplains in her role at the bedside.
“Families are really experiencing a lot when they walk through the doors,” she said. “The departments I oversee, including Pastoral Care, are here to lighten that load and here to support the families through what they’re going through. It really is an honor and a privilege to stand beside families and their children in really, really hard times and to try to, not even guide them through that, but to stand beside them.”
It’s a big reason why Charles and Frank are there, to provide support for parents facing difficult decisions. Not to tell them what is the right decision to make, but to provide support in those crisis moments.
No Such Thing as a Typical Day
No day as a hospital chaplain is typical for Charles and Frank, except that every day begins with prayer. They begin each day praying over the hospital patient census, a listing of all the patients currently admitted. In looking over the census they’ll know what patients they have seen and not seen and who to follow-up on, essentially planning their day from there.
They concentrate more on the Cardiovascular Intensive Care Unit (CVICU), Pediatric Intensive Care Unit (PICU), Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) and Oncology department. Those, I am told, are the more intense floors. It is here that the two staff Chaplains see as many patients as they can.
“We pray together early every morning. We ask God for guidance, wisdom, protection…”
“A lot of days are the same, only different,” Frank said. “They’re the same because we’re dealing with families every day, but the situations are different every day. We never know what we’re going to run into, and that’s why we pray together early every morning. We ask God for guidance, wisdom, protection, anointing, discernment, and favor with patients, parents, doctors, nurses, and the rest of the staff.”
“Occasionally we’re asked to do baptisms for our patients and we do that on request,” Charles said. “We have done weddings here. We’ve also done funerals when requested.”
And that brings to mind the wedding I mentioned earlier. What’s up with that?
“It happens every once in a while.” Frank said. “I do a lot more funerals than I do weddings. Not here at the hospital. The families ask us because they have no one. Many are not connected to a local church, so we are often asked to officiate a funeral, and we do it at no charge. Last Saturday I did a funeral, a hundred miles round trip, and didn’t charge them a penny.”
Hope Is Key
Jenna notes that this is not a ministry department, but rather a chaplaincy department. It is in place to meet families in whatever their belief system is and help support them through difficult times.
While Charles and Frank are on the campus Monday thru Friday, there are five on-call chaplains who respond evenings and weekends by request and volunteer chaplains who serve half a day each week. Volunteer chaplains also help Charles and Frank cover the other medical and surgical floors.
In the hospital’s striving to serve the diverse spiritual needs of families, a volunteer Catholic priest, a Eucharist minister, and a Jewish rabbi are among those available to meet the needs of specific groups. There are other religious leaders in the community the hospital can reach out to.
PCH also offers a bereavement coordinator to provide additional support for families, and there are three memorial services set on the calendar. A secular service in the spring, an Interfaith service in the summer, and a Christian service in the fall.
I recently served as a volunteer at the Interfaith service, which was held in the hospital’s spacious second floor. After the service had concluded, I found myself leaving the hospital with Jenna and told her how impressed I was with the compassion of the staff.
“It’s a wonderful, classy event you provided for these families,” I told her. “What amazes me even more is that you don’t have to do this.”
Jenna didn’t hesitate a moment to respond. “But we should.”
To have a Pastoral Care department and chaplains on staff is what provides hope for the families of patients at Phoenix Children’s Hospital and meets the mission of what children’s hospitals across the country are trying to do.
posted on September 5, 2019
Meet the Author:
Michael P. Murphy is a happily retired dental laboratory technician who now lives the life of a freelance writer in Scottsdale, Arizona. His articles and stories have appeared in The Lookout, Encounter, Straight, Live Wire and R-A-D-A-R. His 1990 novel Wise Up, Zack for Christian teens was published by Standard Publishing. (You still might find it if you dig deep enough on a used book website.) Michael is also a feature writer for Wander AZ, a travel magazine for Arizona tourists.
Photos provided by the Phoenix Children’s Hospital