"Some people, they just want your presence, they just want to talk."

Photo by Candace diCarlo


Library assistant, Lippincott Library
Length of service:
32 years
Other stuff:
Has worked as a volunteer in outreach ministry to Graterford Prison inmates for over a decade.

Even before the rise of alternative medicine, many in mainstream medicine realized that there was more to healing than eliminating the physical symptoms of illness. As early as 1941, students at Penn's Schools of Medicine and Nursing could take courses on the relationship between religion and medicine and the role of the clergy in medical care, taught by the University chaplain, the Rev. J. Clemens Kolb.

Since then, the University of Pennsylvania Medical Center has institutionalized the need to treat the spiritual as well as the physical problems of its patients and their families through its department of pastoral care. Its interfaith chaplaincy has staff on 24-hour call at HUP and Presbyterian Medical Center, volunteer visitors, and a clinical pastoral education program that trains pastoral-care professionals.

Dennis Byrd plans to join that staff. Though he has spent over three decades working intimately with books behind the scenes in Lippincott Library, it is the Good Book that has had the most profound influence on his life, and over the past decade he has helped bring God into the lives of prisoners and patients. Now, as a student in HUP's clinical pastoral education program, he hopes to bring God into the emergency room as a certified chaplain.

Q. What inspired you, after all these years, to make this career switch?
In the last 20 years, I've been more into helping people, giving back to the community, going in the prisons, and boarding homes. What really triggered me into going into this program was that I got involved through a support group here. One of the chaplains here [at HUP] had heard me speak in the chapel a couple of times. He asked me if I would be interested in becoming a part of a support group dealing with the men that were coming through the hospital. There were so many men coming through the hospital through drug-related injuries, and he wanted to form a group that would meet once a week so we could interact with them.
   So basically when it started off, he invited me, a chaplain from Presbyterian and another gentleman that worked in social services here. But after a short period of time, it was just Chaplain Ed Smith and myself who were meeting with these guys, and we did it for over a year and a half.

Q. How long ago was this?
I've been in the program two years, I was a volunteer chaplain/visitor for a year, and I did this a year and a half before that. So maybe it's been five years now.

Q. What exactly is involved in pastoral care?
Pastoral care is allowing the patients and family members to know that God is present for them, and that we represent God.

Q. And in the details, what does this involve?
It entails listening -- they teach us how to listen, and not only just to listen about surface things, but also content things. We're here to read to [patients] if they want us to read Scripture, to pray if they want prayer. Sometimes we do a little bit of counseling when they ask us for advice, but mainly we try not to do that.

Q. You do a residency as part of this program in which you're on call, much like a medical resident would be. Is there a pastoral equivalent of an emergency-room case or a trauma?
Yes. In most trauma alerts, we don't get a chance to interact with the patients, because the doctors, the X-ray technicians, and the surgeons, they're basically dealing with the patient. The doctors and the trauma team and emergency staff, they collect information, and we do also, we're right in there with them. Our basic duties are to call the family, the loved ones. And when they arrive, we take them to the consultation room and we try to make them comfortable, and we allow them to know that as soon as the doctors are able, or the head of the trauma team is able, we will escort them back to [the medical staff] and give them some information. We're like a liaison between the doctors and family, we try to keep them calm.

Q. What things have you learned in the course of your education program?
I've learned a lot of things. I've learned how to identify my personal strengths and weaknesses and my limitations. I've also learned through my classroom work how to be less pressured and to organize and balance my time better. I've sharpened my skills as far as being able to be there with the patient or family members no matter how tough it might get.
   My goal is to be a comfort, to be a blessing, to assist. We not only assist the patients and their families, but we're also there for the doctors and nurses.

Q. You mean you also take care of their spiritual needs?
If it need be so. I've had nurses ask me for prayer or take me into a room and tell me some of their personal things that were happening, things that they were upset about or things that they were going through, and they wanted prayer or they just wanted to talk to someone.

Q. How many different faiths are represented in your CPE class?
We have Episcopal, we have Presbyterian, we have Jewish, and we have non-denominational [Christian]. And our class is not a really large class -- we usually take six to seven students, and our class is five.

Q. What do you find most enjoyable about this work?
I think it's the learning, because you learn a lot about your own self. The trauma is really exciting -- a lot of the chaplains in the program find that the trauma is really intense, but there's excitement even though it's a tragedy, because the trauma team really includes us. And there are so many people who come into the hospital that have problems. Some people, they just want your presence, they just want to talk. We don't have to give them anything, just be there, just listen to them.

Originally published on May 14, 1998