Amid the Ailing and Uninsured, Hospital Chaplain Finds New Faith
Thursday, December 02, 2010
Chicago News Cooperative
by James Warren
Standing in a hallway at Stroger Hospital on Wednesday morning, Dr.
Stathis Poulakidas began a weekly status report on the mostly horrific
cases in the burn unit he runs.
There was a 70-year-old woman whose nightgown had caught fire as she
reached over her stove. A 21-year-old man who had fallen on an el
track’s third rail. A 34-year-old man who, when intoxicated, had been
dragged under a bus. A 7-month-old girl who had somehow been lodged
between a radiator and a wall.
Analyzing them and others — and discussing transfusions, ventilators and
skin grafts to repair physical damage — he was surrounded and assisted
by 12 professionals, including nurses, residents, an infectious disease
specialist, a pharmacist and a physical therapist.
And there was one colleague, Carol Reese, there to minister to the soul.
Her hospital I.D. labels her “violence prevention coordinator,” as does
the Cook County budget line with her position. But Ms. Reese’s white
coat is emblazoned with a more accurate description: chaplain.
She is the first paid chaplain in the 144-year history of the sprawling
medical center known to most as Cook County — part inspiration for
television’s “E.R.” and a longtime destination for a largely poor,
minority and uninsured urban population tended to by a valiant, highly
competent and often-overworked medical staff. Its $500 million in annual
uncompensated care dwarfs that of any other Illinois hospital.
On Friday, Stroger will be the unconventional site of a solemn event:
Ms. Reese’s ordination as an Episcopal minister. The ceremony will be
led by the nation’s top Episcopalian, Presiding Bishop Katharine
Jefferts Schori, the first woman to hold that post in the church’s
400-plus-year history. The event will underscore the intersection of
faith and medicine, and represents the church’s support for Ms. Reese’s
labor on behalf of the uninsured and disenfranchised.
As the minister of her North Side parish, Bonnie Perry of All Saints
Episcopal Church, put it, Ms. Reese “has been ministering to people
living on the edge.”
Many hospitals, especially those with religious affiliations, have paid
chaplains and even 24-hour pastoral care. That’s not true at Stroger,
which has relied on volunteer chaplains, including Jesuits, who have had
a presence there for about a century.
An agreement to establish a paid position resulted from negotiations
among county commissioners and religious leaders. The latter included
Bishop Demetrios of Mokissos, chancellor of the Greek Orthodox
Metropolis of Chicago, who was then president of the Council of
Religious Leaders of Metropolitan Chicago.
“I knew of her work, and it just wasn’t acceptable not to have services
there,” he said. “Now the hospital needs a full-time office.”
Ms. Reese, 54, was raised a Southern Baptist in rural Missouri, and
later moved to Arkansas and Kentucky. She earned master’s degrees in
divinity and social work, then came to Chicago in 1986 to work for the
Baptists at Stroger, focusing on H.I.V. and AIDS patients.
She left to lead the AIDS Pastoral Care Network for 12 years, along the
way making a break with the Baptists. They had become too conservative
for her theological liking and, as a gay woman, she felt out of place.
Her partner, Jeanne Wirpsa, the chaplain at Northwestern Memorial
Hospital, is an Episcopalian. So Ms. Reese went that route, too. They
are the parents of two children.
Ms. Reese became an Episcopal chaplain, though not ordained, and in 2005
returned to the Stroger trauma and burn units, which function as one.
She finds patients who are often “outside the realm of respectability
for most churches” but who cite faith as helping them survive their
As usual, Dr. Poulakidas was assisted at Wednesday’s informal but
systematic session by Dr. Areta Kowal-Vern, director of the burn
research and tissue bank. Every aspect of each patient’s care was
discussed, even debated. Then it was Ms. Reese’s turn.
In the case of a 33-year-old man, burned in a garage fire, she recounted
her dealings with a family of Jehovah’s Witnesses, who cited their
faith in disapproving of blood transfusions. Ultimately, they consented
but would not sign any legal documents, a compromise approved by
The inherent stress can get to the medical staff who, like Dr.
Poulakidas, will seek her help. But it can also get to her.
A 16-year-old with a gunshot wound to the back of the head was dying
when his family agreed to remove him from a ventilator. But they said
their farewells and exited before it was removed. A distressed Ms. Reese
was left to hold his hand and weep as he breathed his last breath.
“He looked so perfectly normal,” the chaplain recalled. “So normal.”