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County hospital's first staff chaplain starts work
Episcopal priest will serve spiritual needs of those in traumatic injuries

Sunday, December 05, 2010
Chicago Tribune
by Becky Schlikerman

Standing before an altar set with a silver cup of wine and bread invoking the Holy Spirit, the Rev. Carol Reese celebrated Mass for the first time Sunday before her longtime congregation at All Saints Episcopal Church in the Ravenswood neighborhood.

But the newly minted priest chose to be ordained among the people she intends to serve — the patients of Stroger Hospital, the Cook County hospital that serves the poor and uninsured.

"I really feel like, and believe, the hospital where I work is where I'm called to be," Reese said. "That's my parish."

This week, Reese will walk into Stroger ready to serve the spiritual needs of those suffering from traumatic injuries. Many hospitals, including those with religious affiliations, have paid chaplains on staff. Reese is the first one in Stroger's history.

"For me it's a matter of justice," Reese said. "Our patients deserve the same level and quality of care as anyone else in the city can get."

The push for a hospital-funded position began two years ago when Bishop Demetrios of Mokissos, chancellor of the Greek Orthodox Metropolis of Chicago, learned there was no professional chaplain at Stroger. The hospital relied mainly on volunteers and Roman Catholic priests from the nearby Jesuit religious order to provide spiritual services.

Bishop Demetrios, then president of the Council of Religious Leaders of Metropolitan Chicago, said he thought the gap was appalling and helped broker the negotiations with hospital officials and religious leaders.

"The doctors wanted it, and the patients wanted it," he said.

They also needed it, said Susan Avila, the hospital's trauma nurse coordinator. Hospital researchers conducted focus groups and were surprised to find that patients felt they needed a spiritual guide to help them heal physically, Avila said.

"A lot of people leave with scars that will forever change the way their body works, the way their body looks," Reese said. "It is hard, and that's part of the reason many of the folks we work with say they turn to their faith to help them get through."

This is Reese's second stint at the hospital. She first arrived in 1986 and was working with the Southern Baptist Convention to help develop a ministry at the hospital. She also worked with HIV/AIDS patients and hospital staff, offering spiritual support to patients and employees working with them.

Reese, who grew up in a small town in Missouri, said she left the Southern Baptists because they became theologically conservative and she didn't see a place for herself in the church leadership, especially as a lesbian. So Reese, 54, followed her partner of now 11 years, Jeanne Wirpsa, and other friends into the Episcopal Church. Wirpsa is a chaplain at Northwestern Memorial Hospital. They live in Chicago's East Rogers Park neighborhood and are the mothers of Eli, 7, and Sophie, 10.

Starting in the early 1990s until 2002, Reese was the executive director of the AIDS Pastoral Care Network, which provided support and education about working with HIV/AIDS patients to clergy and congregations.

But Reese, who has degrees in social work and divinity, returned to Stroger in 2005 as part of a grant-funded position in the trauma department working as a chaplain to support people who had "experienced a death … and to help the team better care for patients and families who were working their way through, recovering from traumatic injuries," she said.

Reese said she feels privileged to be able to help people during life-changing situations, but it can be overwhelming.

She recalls a 16-year-old who was shot in the back of the head.

As he lay on the hospital bed looking "completely normal" but with a catastrophic brain injury, his parents decided to take him off the ventilator. It was a family that had lost several relatives to violence in the street.

"It felt like they just couldn't bear to lose another child," Reese said.

The family didn't stay with the teen once he was taken off the ventilator.

"The staff and I gathered around his bed and held his hand and wept as he breathed his last breath," she said. "It was too much to bear."

For those families and the countless others, Reese said she will continue working and trying to build the chaplain department at Stroger.

"One paid position is not adequate," she said. "My hope is the hospital will eventually make a decision to fund a professional department of pastoral health that is organized and equipped to meet all the needs of the patients."

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