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New Hospital Answers Enduring Call for Pastoral Care

July 18, 2011
Interfaith Chapel

Planned interfaith chapel in the new buildings at Johns Hopkins.

Kenny NICU PICU chaplain 2011

Pediatric pastoral care resident Ed Kenny

In the noisy pediatric intensive care unit at Hopkins Children’s, parents huddle at the bedside of their unconscious child, critically injured in an accident that morning. Consumed by fear and grief, they are introduced to Ed Kenny, a pediatric pastoral care resident, who sits and talks with them in the pediatric intensive care unit's (PICU) elevator lobby. “They are devastated and seeking forgiveness and spiritual solace,” says Kenny, “but there is nowhere else to go for this kind of conversation.”

And, with the exception of a nearby, tiny windowless conference room, there won’t be, until the new Charlotte R. Bloomberg Children’s Center opens at Johns Hopkins next spring. Unlike today, all patient rooms will be private in the new building, which will also house a meditation room designed for reflection or spiritual conversations like this one. “The room will provide a place for families to talk about their child or with their child,” says Kenny, “as well as peaceful space for patients to relax and feel some positive presence.”

At Johns Hopkins and around the country, there is growing formal recognition of the importance of spirituality in the lives of hospitalized children and families. Hopkins Children’s Harriet Lane Compassionate Care program provides comprehensive management of the physical, psychological, social and spiritual needs of children with life-limiting conditions. Children’s spiritual needs in the hospital, regardless of diagnosis, are enduring.

“Children as young as 4 can have an acute sense of their illness and the stress it places on their parents and siblings,” says Kenny, a former Catholic priest, now completing his training in the Clinical Pastoral Care Program at Johns Hopkins. “Little children respond to stories of God’s presence in their lives. As they get older, they talk about their legacy, how they’re going to provide some source of meaning for their lives, and start to look for answers to these questions.”

In the hospital’s neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), where Kenny also rounds, Director of Clinical Research Pamela Donohue arranges a new selection of faith-based books. Purchased with funds from the annual Mix 106.5 Radiothon and its supporters, the books are free to families. Recommended by the Department of Pastoral Care at Hopkins, among others, the reading material represents all the world’s religions, she says. More will stock the shelves in the new meditation room.

“As a researcher, I’ve become interested in how religion affects the provision of care and supports families in critical circumstances,” Donohue says.

Several years ago, she and her colleagues studied NICU families’ interest in spiritual care and whether it was being met at Johns  Hopkins. When the unit brought on its first pastoral care intern, Matt Norvell,  the requests for pastoral care, from both staff and families, increased seven-fold. “Interestingly, only five percent of those had to do with end-of-life situations,” says Donohue.

Today, units like Donohue’s look at their pastoral care providers as members of children’s medical team. “We used to only call them when a patient was dying,” says Donohue.

Beginning in early 2000, several published papers (notably “Spirituality, Religion, and Pediatrics: Intersecting Worlds of Healing, Pediatrics, 2000,) expounded upon the spiritual needs of hospitalized patients, a component, too, of palliative care, which arrived slowly in pediatric care. 

“Pastoral care gives pediatric patients and their families the chance to talk about their experience, to help them understand that there is a source of love and strength that is going to hold them together,” says Kenny, whose own residency ends this August.

Until then, he makes rounds in Hopkins Children’s NICU and PICU to see if parents and children are interested in support from pastoral care, or if nurses and social workers have a referral. “Because most of our kids have a parent with them, we minister to families chiefly,” he says.

The meditation room in the new building, opening next spring, will provide a quiet space where families and children can relax and focus on some of these spiritual questions. The building, and its adjoining Johns Hopkins Sheikh Zayed Tower for adults, will also house outdoor gardens, a new interfaith chapel and numerous other areas for respite and reflection.


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