Chaplain to be ordained among those she serves

December 1, 2010

On Dec. 3 in Chicago, hospital chaplain Carol Reese will be ordained to the priesthood in a service at John H. Stroger Jr. Hospital, the former Cook County Hospital, where she has served as a chaplain in the trauma department since 2005.

For Reese, formally entering the priesthood at the hospital -- her parish, really -- is an opportunity to call attention to the plight of the medically underserved: She is the first paid chaplain in the history of Stroger Hospital, and the only paid chaplain in the Cook County system.

"This is a public hospital -- probably half or a little more than half of patients are uninsured -- a hospital like this is always scrambling," said Reese in a telephone interview. "To think about doing something nonmedical, even though people thought it was a good idea, when some of the basic services are hard to provide, can seem a bit over the top.

"The thing that is interesting about this is colleagues, people who don't think of themselves as religious folks, see this as important and put a lot of time and effort into making this happen," she said. "[In the beginning] it wasn't the church people taking the lead; some have along the way …"

Some 10 years ago, Dr. Kim Joseph, a surgeon and division chair for critical care, and Sue Avila, a nurse epidemiologist, worked together on a project for the trauma department that involved asking former patients, many of them young African American men, about what it was that helped them through their trauma and they answered unequivocally, "faith," said Joseph, who doesn't consider herself "particularly religious," in a telephone interview.

"It's pretty unusual for us, in the world we live in, to get a clear cut answer," she said, adding that from there they started looking into how the department could provide professional pastoral care.

At first they considered forming a partnership with another hospital (Stroger Hospital is one of four major medical centers located in the Illinois Medical District), but preferred something more permanent and sustainable, and began looking for someone with a master of divinity degree and experience in nonprofit management, grant writing, social work who could minister to people of all denominations and backgrounds, Joseph said.

Enter Reese, who is a licensed clinical social worker, had worked in the past to raise money for chaplains, was formally the executive director of the AIDS Pastoral Care Network in Chicago, and who also had the necessary theological training.

Although other chaplains work at Stroger Hospital as volunteers, Reese worked with doctors and nurses from the trauma department and other supporters to create and fund her position, basing her argument on Joseph and Avila's findings and other research and studies in which patients cited their faith as the most important factor in seeing them through their medical ordeals. Reese joined the staff in September 2009.

The American Hospital Association recommends one chaplain for every 100 patients.

"Medical outcomes are demonstrably improved when pastoral care is part of the total delivery system," said Chicago Bishop Jeffery Lee in a telephone interview." It's simply a matter of best practices and needs to be provided."

Lee first met Reese in 2008, shortly after he became bishop of Chicago, when Reese, Joseph and Avila gave a presentation about the importance of spiritual care in promoting the best medical outcome to the Council of Religious Leaders of Metropolitan Chicago.

During the presentation the women cited studies and resources, making the case that spiritual care "is not an add on, it is a matter of standard care, and the scandal of not having a funded position in the Cook County system," Lee said.

"What was so arresting was Carol's commitment -- her heart is on fire for the population served there," said Lee in a telephone interview. "I thought to myself, 'Who is this person?' and then I figured out that she is one of mine. Her passion is infectious."

The really impressive thing, Lee said, is that Reese and her hospital colleagues were able to marshal support on both sides of the equation: the medical and the ecumenical religious community.

Bishop Demetrios Kantzavelos, Greek Orthodox Metropolis of Chicago, who met Reese in the late 1980s at the height of the AIDS pandemic when she was working for the AIDS Pastoral Care Network, also became a supporter.

The goal, he said in a telephone interview, is to "minister to the whole person."

Eventually, Kantzavelos said, he and others hope there will be a director of chaplaincies for the entire hospital.

Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori will participate in Reese's ordination to the priesthood. Coincidentally, the presiding bishop will be in Chicago to give a free public lecture, "Health and Healing Across the World and Across the Street: Collaboration Between the Religious and Health Care Communities," and to participate in a panel discussion at nearby Rush University Medical Center prior to the ordination service.

"Having the presiding bishop there draws attention to the partnerships between people of faith and those who work in the medical community, reminding all of us that we are holistic beings and that for healing we need to address people on all levels," said Reese.