10/30/06 — Hospital's volunteer chaplains offer comfort to local families

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Hospital's volunteer chaplains offer comfort to local families

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on October 30, 2006 1:45 PM

The Rev. Ralph Johnson recalls the first time he helped a family deal with the loss of a child.

"I received a call late one evening and was informed that there was an infant death," he said. "I rushed to the hospital, expecting a newborn child. When I got there, I found it was a young boy who was about 8 years old."

The father, he said, was distraught.

"I anticipated I would deal with it one-on-one or even one-on-two, but when I got there, there was a whole family grieving," Johnson said. "I felt I needed reinforcements."

As a volunteer hospital chaplain, though, in that moment there were none.

The occasion also made Johnson keenly aware of the role health caregivers play.

"We don't always think about the medical staff. When they're caring for their patients, they, too, have feelings and emotions," he said. "One of the attendants was deeply touched by what had happened and also needed pastoral care."

Touched by what he witnessed among the staff, Johnson said it was obvious that the child's loss was profoundly felt in that waiting room.

"The parents, friends, relatives, were all grieving, comforting one another while they themselves needed comfort," he said. "You cannot detach yourself from it. It's something that stays with you for time memorial."

And it is something Johnson believes God has called him to do -- step up and be a comfort to others.

"I know that I have experienced times in my lifetime that I needed to be comforted," he said. "Part of my call to ministry leads me to believe I'm meant to go. I felt a tugging, so to speak, to go into ministry and work in pastoral care."

Johnson was already involved in ministry. Retired from the military, he currently serves as associate minister at Best Grove Missionary Baptist Church and is attending Campbell University, working on his Master of Divinity degree.

He also volunteers the third weekend of each month in the chaplaincy program at Wayne Memorial Hospital.

"I think it takes a special gift to be able to work in the pastoral care arena. That's the thing I see in Suzanne" Franklin, who was hired as hospital chaplain more than a year ago, he said. "I could see that if she didn't have volunteers, she'd never leave the hospital."

Pastoral care is definitely needed, he said.

"Physicians and nurses deal with the physical healing but individuals -- there's a mental and spiritual healing that takes place and if a person is spiritually depressed or mentally depressed, then their physical healing may take longer," he said.

Ms. Franklin said she is grateful for the 21 associate chaplains who cross denominational lines and work under her direction.

"They have to be trained, have to be ordained ministers and have some type of background in hospital ministry," she said. "They're like an arm of my department -- emergency after hours, taking a pager home with them."

But it goes above and beyond the call of duty, she said. Many work nights and weekends, often in addition to their regular pastoral jobs. And if it wasn't for them, Ms. Franklin says there would be a void.

"I'm a one-person department. I can't work 24/7 so to have them come on and volunteer their time -- once a month, some twice a month or on weekends -- it's a huge help, and it's great for them to have fellowship with other ministers," she said.

The Rev. Don Sauls, senior pastor at Pikeville Pentecostal Free Will Baptist Church, views volunteering as an opportunity to help a lot of hurting people.

"There are many people from this community that don't have pastoral care," he said. "They go to the hospital, get news that's very difficult. When people are suffering, it's a very difficult time for them. (With) no one there to assist them, it's a wonderful opportunity to reach out."

Sauls has been volunteering at the hospital for about 10 years, he said. In that time, he has had many opportunity to be involved in emergency response situations.

"I live close to the hospital, and they call me when they can't get ahold of somebody," he said. "I do that kind of thing all the time. On those days, I wear a pager for 24 hours."

Sometimes his role is to talk to patients, others to support families. But always, he says, it is a team effort.

"You're there when their life is in turmoil. The just need someone to care ... to be with the family and assist the medical staff, care for the family while they're trying to care for the patient," he said.

Ms. Franklin said she continually works to enlist help from the surrounding churches. She said she has been pleased with the representation from a variety of denominations and races, but could always use more.

For information on the program, call 731-6321.