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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 ordeals.

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 hospital lawyers.

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.”

jwarren@chicagonewscoop.org



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