By Glenda Spearman
After nearly 20 years as a Catholic chaplain in a non-religiously affiliated pediatric hospital, I am no longer surprised by the wide variety of calls I receive from the medical staff or families of critically ill patients: “When all else fails medically, call the chaplain!” I may get called to perform a baptism, or to offer a final blessing or prayers at end of life or prior to an emergency procedure. Here are four cases I attended that illustrate the range of needs we see.
Recently, I was called to the bedside of a new arrival to the NICU, Baby Ellie, who had been born at a nearby Chicago hospital. Baby Ellie was limp, non-responsive, and “bluish” upon delivery, but the medical team worked until they got a pulse. She was then rushed to our pediatric hospital for further management. After 72 hours, it was determined that Ellie had not taken one breath on her own, had not made any movements of her own and had no brain function.
As the NICU chaplain, I had spent the first two days providing emotional and spiritual support to the tearful father. On the third day, the nurse called me upon the arrival of the mother, who was not only meeting Baby Ellie for the first time but also facing the devastating medical updates that her newborn was at end-of-life. Mother welcomed my presence and asked for prayers, stating she was “a believing Christian” (identified as a non-denominational Protestant). The parents then made the most difficult decision “to let baby Ellie go to keep her from suffering.” I asked the mother, in addition to a final blessing and prayers, whether baptism for Baby Ellie would be of value in their particular Christian tradition. The mother looked up, surprised, and wiped tears from her eyes. “You mean I can get her baptized here? I never even thought about that! That would be wonderful!” On Ellie’s last day of life – when there were no more medical options – she was in a beautiful white satin gown, held by her mother, surrounded by family and loved ones, and baptized by this Catholic chaplain before all the medical tubing and mechanical ventilation and support were finally removed.
Baby Jason was the firstborn child of teen parents. The parents stated that they “believed in a God but not religion” and were “spiritual” but did not go to any church. The teen father declared that he was “a seeker of truth” and was looking into Islam. The mother later confided to me that she was raised “Christian.” In addition to being born extremely premature, Baby Jason had multiple anomalies, and a severe diaphragmatic hernia. Despite their son having a poor prognosis, the young parents had insisted that the NICU doctors “do everything to save our baby.”
Two days after Baby Jason had been admitted to our NICU, the attending physician called me. “Can you come right away?! We have done everything medically for Jason, but his heart rate is dropping rapidly, and we are about to lose him!” When I arrived, the parents and a couple of family members were huddled together in the corner of the room crying, as the large medical team desperately worked on Jason. In the midst of everything, the grandmother of the father spoke firmly to her grandson: “Now I know you both have the final say about Baby Jason. And I know you are thinking about becoming a Muslim. But I raised you to be a good Christian. And while Chaplain Glenda is here and before anything happens, I want this baby dedicated to God, to Jesus Christ!”
The tearful mother nodded; the tearful father just shrugged and replied, “If you want to.” For clarification, I asked the grandmother and parents if they wanted a blessing or a baptism. They all agreed to a baptism. Baby Jason stabilized just long enough for me to baptize him with the parents and even the NICU medical team participating. As if on cue, he quickly declined afterward and died cradled in the arms of his parents. Each parent, the father’s grandmother, and three other family members asked for a copy of the baptismal certificate.
Maggie, a previously healthy and active seven-year-old girl, had been diagnosed with heart damage after a prolonged severe illness, requiring a heart transplant. Her father professed to be Jewish, and her mother grew up Catholic, but neither parent practiced any religion. The father was adamant that he wanted nothing to do with any chaplain or spiritual care services. But after Maggie had been hospitalized for several months, and listed on the heart transplant list, the mother approached me and other chaplains, requesting us to sneak in and baptize Maggie when the father was not around, without ever letting him know about it. We all declined that request.
That all changed one morning when I received an urgent call from Alice, the cardiac social worker. A heart had been identified for Maggie, had been accepted by our doctors, and Maggie was being taken down to surgery now! Alice said that before they left the room, the mother had requested Maggie to be baptized before the transplant surgery, and the father had consented.
I rushed to the cardiac unit just in time to meet Maggie and at least 20 members of the medical transplant team. The entourage stopped in unison when I approached them – they all understood why I was there. “What do you need, Chaplain?” one of the masked nurses asked. “Sterile water,” I replied. Someone handed me a quart-size bottle. I blessed it, reached through to Maggie, amidst the wires, intravenous poles, machinery, and medical team, baptized her, and loudly pronounced “Amen!” The medical team responded “Amen!” and whisked Maggie away to a successful, life-saving heart transplant surgery.
The nurse paged me to the bedside of Arjun, an actively dying ten-year-old male cardiac patient. The soft-spoken parents explained that their only child did not have long to live. He had been born with a rare heart disease, and the parents had brought him from India to our pediatric hospital as the last hope for a cure. But all medical interventions had been exhausted, and there was nothing left to do but to keep Arjun comfortable and let him die peacefully. The parents, who were Hindu, had requested the chaplain to say a final blessing over their dying child. I explained that I did not know any Hindu prayers. “But aren’t you the one to represent God in this hospital?” they asked. When I stammered ‘yes’, they insisted: “Please say a beautiful prayer as if Arjun were your own child, so that he would have a safe and peaceful journey.”
To this day, some 19 years later, only God knows what I prayed that evening. But I felt a deep presence of God, who took over my words. Afterwards, the parents looked up with tears streaming from their eyes, nodded, smiled and whispered, “That was beautiful. Thank you!” Arjun died peacefully that same night, but I left their room awestruck, and recognized that something holy had taken place.
Glenda R. Spearman, BCC, is a senior staff chaplain at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago.