Chaplains accompany patients on road to health or hereafter

By Lidia Wasowicz

Elizabeth Du Par was not alone as she gulped her grief watching her dying mother gasp for breath.

Neither was Lisa Hamrick during her recuperation from sickness and surgery and her mother’s losing struggle with illness and injury.

They had companions on the road to recovery or return to their Maker — hospital chaplains.

They “were there for both mom and me, especially in the final moments of her life,” related Du Par, referring to Marin Health Medical Center chaplains Father William Thornton, pastor of St. Sebastian Church in Greenbrae, and Episcopal Deacon Alberta Buller and to her former neighbor Edna Griffith, who offered support the minute she saw the ambulance arrive at Du Par’s door in the early hours of June 24, 2021, to rush her pneumonia-stricken mother to the hospital.

Father Bill Thornton

“I feel each one, although not previously known to her, was an angel sent by God to walk with us,” said Du Par, who shares and seeks solace at small-group discussions on bereavement at St. Hilary Church in Tiburon.

God also sent an emissary to walk with Hamrick during her trips to the hospital for her array of ailments and her mother’s series of serious conditions and a traumatic brain injury during the last four years of her life, which ended in February.

On one occasion, the chaplain anointed and absolved Hamrick on a gurney as she was being wheeled into the operating room.

“It was a deeply moving and consoling moment in my life,” the Third Order Dominican and parishioner at St. Dominic’s Church in San Francisco confided.

She and Du Par consider hospital chaplains indispensable.

“They need to be part of the journey wherever it might lead – either to the patient’s recovery or toward death,” Hamrick said.

Chaplains agree.

“Many patients, both Catholic and non-Catholic, have spiritual needs that can’t be addressed by social workers, therapists or medical staff,” said Carmelite Father Michael Kwiecien, parochial vicar at St. Teresa of Avila Church and chaplain for 12 years at Kaiser Permanente San Francisco Medical Center, where he visited 41 patients the day he talked with Catholic San Francisco.

As representatives of Jesus, priests bring unique benefits to the bedside, concurred Father Paulinus Iwuji of the Congregation of Sons of Mary Mother of Mercy, full-time chaplain for five years at the San Francisco VA Hospital at Fort Miley.

“Chaplains bring healing to the sick through active listening, by showing compassion and empathy, by exercising a nonjudgmental presence and by creating a safe space where patients and family can share and express their needs and desires, their worries and anxieties … so that healing can occur,” he said. “Chaplains are bearers of hope as they bring God’s comforting presence.”

Father Teodoro Magpayo

Some have felt the presence sufficiently to convert or return to the fold. Hospital chaplains have performed bedside baptisms and weddings, along with administering the sacraments of reconciliation and anointing of the sick.

In one particularly poignant encounter, Father Iwuji accompanied a cancer patient fighting for life following surgery no one expected him to survive.

Over five days in the intensive care unit, the unbaptized but self-described “fallen Catholic” slowly opened his eyes and heart.

“Chaplain, God gave me this chance for a reason,” the patient tearfully realized. “If I ever get out of this hospital, the first thing I will do is get baptized.”

Father Iwuji will never forget the phone call informing him he had kept his promise.

Memorable moments and the transformative nature of his vocation make chaplaincy “priceless” to Father Ernesto Jandonero, who ministered at Kaiser medical centers in San Leandro and Fremont before being transferred Oct. 10 to the health care giant’s facility in Redwood City, where he also serves at Sequoia Hospital.

During one visit, he witnessed a woman with terminal cancer turn her anxiety and sorrow into serenity and acceptance after receiving the last rites before her chemotherapy session.

“I do not have any words to explain the mysticism of the effects of the sacraments,” Father Jandonero said.

He remembers how the patient took his hand, looked him in the eye, smiled and said, “Thank you, Father Ernie. I will see you in heaven.”

Several weeks later, her mother informed him of her daughter’s dying wish: that he officiate at her funeral.

The chaplains’ companionship has garnered particular gratitude during the restrictions and limitations on hospital visitors forced by COVID-19, said Father Teodoro Magpayo, full-time chaplain at Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital and Trauma Center.

Appreciation aside, accompanying the sick and absolving the sinner are the favorite parts of his job, said Father Thornton, chaplain at Marin’s main hospital who also ministers at a retirement residence and four skilled nursing facilities in the area.

Not every priest is cut out for a vocation that makes rigorous physical, emotional and personal demands, said Via Christi Father Raymond Tyohemba, chaplain at UCSF Medical Center at Mission Bay and administrator of St. Finn Barr Church in San Francisco.

“I was on my knees talking to this lady, and she said, ‘I’m sure you’re not a priest because a priest would be standing over me,’” Father Tyohemba recollected. “I just smiled.”

To keep smiling, chaplains should take care of themselves as well as of their patients, Father Iwuji said.

“Take some time off to recuperate,” he advised, noting the draining nature of the job assigned – or approved in the few cases where hospitals hire the chaplain – by the archbishop for an unspecified term.

Calling to mind several priests who “preferred other jobs than being a Catholic chaplain,” Father Te Van Nguyen asked the public to “pray for priests daily (to be) faithful to our ministry.”

The director of the Vietnamese Catholic community at St. Thomas the Apostle and several other churches said he almost retired during his 17 years as a chaplain, the last eight at UCSF Medical Center at Parnassus in San Francisco, but “to be faithful to my job, I practiced to be … Jesus’ disciple in this challenge.”

“May we chaplains be worthy companions on the journey – sometimes in people’s last few moments of (life) and sometimes on their road to recovery,” Father Magpayo prayed. “Praise the Lord!”

Award-winning journalist Wasowicz, former West Coast science editor and senior science writer for United Press International, has been writing for Catholic San Francisco since 2011.