Outside little Ruthie Yanez’s Primary Children’s Hospital room window, the sun breaks through leaden skies as a cold, light rain blows through the Salt Lake Valley below.
But the 5-year-old girl must create her own sunshine these days. Surgery to remove a brain tumor has left Ruthie’s soft, chocolate brown eyes sightless; her overall condition remains “guarded” after several weeks at the hospital.
Doctors don’t know if Ruthie’s blindness will prove permanent. What is certain is that the pale, ebony-haired child faces months of therapy, including reclaiming the ability to walk, when she finally is released.
Still, her face brightens into a smile upon hearing chaplain Vicki Pond pull up a chair next to her bed. “Hi, Ruthie,” Pond says. “I’ve brought some new friends to meet you today.”
At first shy, she answers with a barely audible “hi” to introductions and a “thank you” when told she is pretty. Then, reassured by gentle touches from her mother, Carmina Yanez, Ruthie talks about what has made her happy over the long days and nights of crisis and recovery.
Visits by her brother and two sisters, for starters, and by several families from their West Valley City Pentecostal church. Snack time also makes the list, as does praying with “Chaplain Vicki.”
“The last time we prayed together,” Pond says, “Ruthie asked for God to bless all the children in the hospital.”
The girl softly adds, “And to be thankful for what you have, not what you want.”
At Primary Children’s Hospital and medical facilities elsewhere along the Wasatch Front and beyond — while doctors and nurses tend to medical concerns — chaplains strive daily to navigate a landscape of the soul comprising differing faiths. They pray with patients and families to restock dwindling reservoirs of hope, and console those slogging through the crucible of grief, while struggling to build a bridge of healing crafted of miracles both medical and spiritual.
Such moments are sacred for chaplains such as Pond, who says her odyssey to Ruthie’s bedside was a lifetime in the making. She tells of growing up in Colorado, a Mormon girl who treasured a religiously and ethnically diverse and “rich environment where everyone had all these varying spiritual paths.”
It was a propitious foundation for her role today as an interfaith chaplain, though she did not begin to suspect that until after a personal tragedy. “In 1997, one of my daughters was killed in a car accident. I went through an interesting grieving process, trying to find meaning in that.”
During the following decade, Pond struggled to find a cosmic explanation. “It really was eye-opening,” she recalls. “I really felt like I had been baptized into the human race when my daughter died.”
When the stock market downturn of 2008 hit, Pond needed to go back to work. She knew she wanted to do “something meaningful” and was on her way to becoming a social worker when she met a chaplain — and that encounter changed her course.
Pond had found meaning, and something more — a positive way to move forward, to redeem her loss by “having a job meeting people and listening to their stories and how they got through hard times.”
One year and 1,600 hours of training with the Clinical Pastoral Education program followed. Being an interfaith chaplain means making one’s own religious background secondary to the needs of the sick, whether they have a Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist or other spiritual tradition — or none at all. Sometimes Pond prays with patients and their families. Sometimes she arranges for visits by clergy. Sometimes she just listens.
“It’s about being open and not judging people,” Pond says. “‘Tell me about your faith, how do you pray … where do you get your strength, what beliefs are most important to you,’ that sort of thing.”
A second calling
Eight years ago, Rosemary Baron chose what would become a second career as a chaplain at Intermountain Medical Center in Murray after retiring from 43 years in public education.
However, her journey, or at least a simmering predisposition to chaplaincy, may have actually begun in 1967, when Baron, raised Roman Catholic and educated by church schools in the Midwest, took a teaching assignment in Libya.
What developed was the equivalent of a cultural and spiritual worldview Big Bang, and the three years of multiethnic and religious immersion that came with it.
“I had come from a small town in Michigan to an unbelievably bustling, glorious Tripoli,” Baron recalls, “a city in those days [where] there was a blending, a recognition of Jewish and Christian faiths with, of course, the [predominant] Muslim faith.”
She came to cherish the Islamic call to prayer, chanted several times a day from the minarets of Tripoli. When not instructing the children of oil company workers, she taught English to Libyan women, an experience that helped her look beyond the burqas and veils, shed once they entered the classroom, to the mothers and daughters hungry to learn.
As her public education career later drew to a close in Utah, Baron found herself as a teacher and administrator at Northwest Middle School in Salt Lake City’s Rose Park neighborhood. In the 1980s and ’90s, she recalls, the school was a focal point for a large influx of refugees and immigrants from myriad cultural and religious backgrounds.
Today, Baron — who has special training in palliative care chaplaincy, or providing spiritual support to chronically ill and “end-of-life” patients — prays with, listens to and comforts “people of any faith or no faith.”
It is, ultimately, the human thing to do, she says, sharing a particularly poignant memory of a terminally ill Buddhist man. While not believing in a god, he did share with Baron a sense of the sacred.
“Those few days — what an honor it was for me to be able to do that,” Baron says. “I asked him, ‘Could we [pray for] those things that are holy and good to bring you peace and comfort?’ He said, ‘Yes, that��s what I want.’”
At what would be his deathbed, the chaplain and the man’s son joined hands with him and prayed. Not long after, the circle closed with a peaceful passing.
“I look back and see that every single thing I have done in my life has prepared me for what I am doing now,” Baron muses. “It certainly has strengthened my own faith; I rely on God every day to guide me.”
Art of healing
For Saundra Shanti, a bachelor’s degree in art and education, a master’s in theology and CPE training certification have enriched her role as the lead chaplain at St. Mark’s Hospital.
“We are primarily about compassion and accompanying people [in the hospital],” Shanti explains. “Many people [today] identify as ‘spiritual,’ but not ‘religious.’ The arts are a way we connect to everyone without having to climb over old wounds, doctrines or beliefs to get to a spiritual place.”
For instance, St. Mark’s patients and, occasionally, emotionally stressed staffers might be invited to create artwork at portable “studios” set up at bedsides or in employee break rooms. Art, Shanti believes, can bring conversation, counseling and healing.
Recent “compassion flag” projects have borrowed the Tibetan Buddhist prayer flag tradition, with patients and caregivers alike decorating bright rectangles of cloth into personal expressions of faith, loss, recovery and gratitude.
Shanti treasures one such art-born moment of grace in particular, a case involving a young woman who had learned the child she was about to birth had already died.
“The baby had died in utero. She was going to have to go through the birth process knowing this,” Shanti recounts, “and she was in a lot of pain and grief, and needing a way to express that.”
One of the chaplaincy’s art trays was brought to the woman’s room, and she and her family united in “creating these beautiful compassion flag pieces,” Shanti explains, “in a sense putting in their blessings, prayers and sorrows, and then offering them as a way to release some of that grief.”
After the stillbirth, the chaplain met the woman as she was discharged. “She gave me the flag she had created for her baby, asking that it be hung with the other 75 we had on display in our chapel,” Shanti says. “It was her way of being able to walk out the door.”
Shanti has collected many such memories since joining St. Mark’s in 2012. All of them, she says, have “expanded, deepened and heightened my perception of the holy and what it means to be both human and engaged spiritually.”
She adds: “The opposite of faith is not doubt. The opposite of faith is certainty. I find these days I’m more of an explorer with people.”
‘It is a privilege’
With today’s emphasis on hospital chaplains being truly interfaith, you might think that requirement could pose a challenge for Susan Roberts, an Episcopal priest who has served in spiritual care at University of Utah Hospital for nearly 11 years.
Not so, says Roberts, who says her volunteering as assistant clergy at Salt Lake City’s St. Paul’s Episcopal Church complements her job as a nondenominational hospital chaplain.
“I am able to stay grounded in my own tradition, which sustains me to do the work I do at the hospital,” she says, while her training in other faith traditions enriches and informs her in serving patients of widely varying backgrounds.
“What is most important is to engage the patient about what is important to them,” Roberts says, “how their faith plays into that, how they [deal] with their illness or what has happened to them.”
Whether the patient is Christian, Jew, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu or someone with a personally defined faith, or none at all, she sees the chaplain’s role as recognizing there are “a lot of commonalities in spirituality,” regardless of specific beliefs.
“I’m a Christian,” Roberts says, “but I have become deeply connected to [the concept of] energy, its movement and the mind-body-spirit experience connecting the whole.”
That openness, she suggests, is key to effective chaplaincy.
“It is a privilege to be invited into people’s lives and as chaplains we are,” Roberts says. “We are not a required discipline in the hospital the way that the doctors, nurses, physical therapists are for the patients.”
She remembers once working with a woman in a psychiatric unit who was suffering temporary blindness. Counterintuitively, perhaps, Roberts chose art therapy to bring about a breakthrough.
“‘What would be the color of peace,’ I asked her. She described azure blue. … The color of anger? She chose a particular red and colored it [on paper],” Roberts remembers. “I laid my hand on top of hers, so we were doing this together, and then asked where [her] peace came from.”
“That would come from Jesus’ blood that he shed,” the patient told her. So instead of the earlier blue, she described another shade of red.
Together, the blind woman and the chaplain rolled the new, healing vermillion over the earlier swath of angry red. “Then, we did the blue,” Robert says. “She couldn’t see it, but she touched it. She hung it up on her wall and said, ‘Now I can touch the peace.’”
Rays of hope
Back at Primary Children’s Hospital, Ruthie’s interests have turned from the metaphysical to more earthy imperatives: She is hungry, recalling a recent hospital room feast of pizza and sweets with her family.
“She tells me, ‘Mom, I’m good, I’m good. Let’s go home now, I’m learning to walk, so let’s go,’” mother Carmina Yanez says, while leaning in and cocking her head when Ruthie whispers to her.
“Cake? You want more cake?” Yanez laughs. “You had enough cake already, but I’ll keep it in mind.”
Ruthie smiles. So does Chaplain Vicki Pond. Such moments represent a microcosm of her calling as a chaplain. For a precious minute or two, uncertainty is banished as a snapshot of faith, compassion, love and hope imprints on memory.
“It’s all about what matters to them now, what are their hopes,” Pond says. “And we always have hope, even when it is hard to recognize or reframe.
“We find things to hold on to, to hope in.”