For many of the CPE residents, training and working in an interfaith environment has a profound effect. Janis Nelson, now an adjunct chaplain, was raised “a very traditional Baptist” and had taken theological classes in Biblical counseling while she worked in the grief assistance program in the medical examiner’s office from 1997-98. The minister at her church told her about the CPE program at Penn. The day she applied to the part-time extern program at Pennsylvania Hospital, she was admitted even though the group was already in progress. “The director called me and told me I was a godsend since somebody had just dropped out,” she remembers.

Those early days were rough. “I came out every night crying, traumatized by what I had seen,” she recalls. “But I had to go back. I had to complete what I set out to do or I would have failed God.” That was 12 years ago, and in the interim this sixtyish grandmother got hooked on trauma. In fact, she loved it so much that she completed the CPE residency program twice, even after serving as an adjunct chaplain after the completion of her first extern unit.

“I love working in that trauma bay,” she says with a smile. “It is a joy to be part of this place. Once you have come to this program and trained in an interfaith space it is hard to go home to a traditional one. It seems I was looking for something else and I found it here. I meet the patients in that place, a ground-zero, humanistic place.”

“Taking care of our patients in a non-faith-specific way is wonderful,” echoes Linda Joy Goldner, a rabbinic student who recently completed the full-time residency program and now serves as an adjunct chaplain. “In fact, it has removed the concept of ‘movement’ for me with regard to my own religion, and I belong to a variety of different synagogues, from orthodox to liberal. My mood Shabbat morning dictates where I am going to pray.”

Gwen Jackson found herself drawn to the chaplaincy after surviving Stage 4 inflammatory breast cancer in 2000, keeping her end of a bargain she made with God. During her treatment (chemo, surgery, radiation, and chemo again), Jackson found herself surrounded by a strong support system. “My older sister is a Prayer Warrior and between her prayer circle and that of all the parents at Friends Central School, where my son Brandon was then in ninth grade, I felt so incredibly loved,” she recalls. “I told God that if He let me live, I would be of service.”

Live she did, and, in 2005, Jackson enrolled full-time at Howard University School of Divinity in Washington. “I moved into the dorm, lived in one room and found myself 40 years older than most of the students,” she says with a laugh. “But I immersed myself and embraced it.”

Jackson graduated in May 2007 (earning the school’s Humanitarian Award) and moved back to Philadelphia to enroll in the CPE summer internship program at Pennsylvania Hospital. Towards the end of the program, she bumped into Ciampa, who told her that Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia had just received a grant for a nine-month CPE resident. Was she interested? Jackson, the former head of the Wynnefield Private Academy, a pre-K through third-grade school, never hesitated.

The 62-year-old Jackson currently serves as an adjunct chaplain at HUP, working the on-call shift four times a month and “whenever I am needed.” Though she counsels all patients and family members, she continues to be drawn to the child in the room when one is present, especially at times of trauma or death. “I call them the silent young partners,” she explains. “Most of the time when I see them they are silent, and many times these children are asked to go to school the next day, like nothing unusual happened.”

Jackson’s dream is to open a place in West Philadelphia where grieving children and teens could come to help them process their emotions and keep their memories alive. “Grief is timeless and individual,” she says. “For me it is about children. I’d like to be able to help them embrace their faith traditions to help them heal, no matter what those traditions are.”

Jackson was among the recipients of the department’s Spirit of Caring awards this year. In accepting the award, given annually to recognize members of the HUP community for their ministry, Jackson could easily have been speaking for any of her colleagues. “I’d like to thank HUP for allowing me to be a pastor to those whose pastor is not here: to hear their story, to be with them as they pass on, and to allow me to see the power of God,” she said. “I could have checked out 11 years ago—but since I didn’t, I checked in to find out what my real purpose is.”


Kathryn Levy Feldman LPS’09 has written frequently for the Gazette. For more information on the Department of Pastoral Care and about Spiritual Care Without Borders, a fund that helps support its programs, visit www.uphs.upenn.edu/pastoral.

 


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FEATURE: The Spirit of Caring by Kathryn Levy Feldman
Photography by Chris Crisman C'03
©2011 The Pennsylvania Gazette

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Adjunct Chaplain Gwen Jackson: “I told God that if He let me live, I would be of service.”

 


 

 
 
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