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They don’t diagnose illnesses, prescribe drugs, perform medical procedures, or suggest treatment options, but chaplains and other pastoral care staff are a key part of the medical team at Penn’s hospitals.


As the staff trauma chaplain at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania (HUP), Reverend David Henfield operates in the world of grave illness and sudden disaster—car crashes, gunshot wounds, and other acts of violence. Many of the patients he serves have around-the-clock police surveillance.

Each morning at seven, Henfield gets a printout of the patients newly admitted to the hospital’s intensive care and trauma units. He serves as the hospital’s liaison between the patient and his or her family—though, since many of his patients are unable to talk, he admits he often spends more time with the families. But he visits every patient, every day. “When you spend time with a person at death’s door or even in a coma, I believe they know,” he says. “People who have been there and walked out of here tell me they remember my visits.”

Henfield also responds to every trauma case admitted during his 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. shift, spending hours and sometimes days tracking down the families of men and women whose lives hang in the balance. It is his job to inform family members that a loved one has been admitted to HUP and to meet them at the ER. Then he tries to arrange a consultation with the trauma team for the family or, if possible, escorts them back to see their relative. Often he prays with the friends and relatives who wait in the family lounge.

Henfield is also often present when the decision has been made to disconnect life support—as on one recent morning when I accompany him to the bedside of a gunshot victim who had been brought in three days earlier. Despite the best efforts of the trauma team, nothing more can be done, and the patient’s family, their minister, and several doctors and nurses have come to say their final goodbyes. Henfield enters and gently greets the family members. He suggests they gather around the bed and hold hands, then says a short prayer to bless the life of the patient and send him to his eternal rest.

The monitor flatlines and is switched off. The mother’s sobs break the silence, and the family minister thanks the hospital staff. Henfield shakes hands with each relative and quietly takes his leave. The family may remain in the room for a few hours, he explains, after which the body will most likely go to the medical examiner’s office for an autopsy. Since this was a gunshot wound, the medical examiner must certify the death certificate.

“It never gets easy, but when it comes to random acts of violence, I turn to the Scriptures and realize that men have become lovers of themselves and want to take ownership of everything, including the law,” he says. “As long as we will be who we are without changing, men will continue to destroy men for no real reason. It seems that crime just shifts from one corner to the next.”

Each day Henfield and his colleagues who minister to the patients, families, and staff at HUP tread in what Kava Schafer, the staff oncology chaplain, calls “sacred space”—the extreme zones of life that accompany illness, trauma, tragedy, and death. Pastoral care staff members are considered part of a patient’s medical team, and like their colleagues are on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Each of the hospitals in Penn’s Health System has an autonomous chaplain, but the Department of Pastoral Care and Education is headquartered at HUP. In addition to Henfield and Schafer, the pastoral care team includes two part-time staff chaplains, Reverend Barbara Emery and Rabbi Robert Tabak, who help provide round-the-clock care. Reverend Ralph Ciampa, the director of the department, and Reverend Jim Browning, coordinator of clinical pastoral education, share clinical duties while also teaching in HUP’s nationally accredited and highly regarded clinical pastoral education (CPE) program. As part of their training, CPE residents also minister to patients, supplemented by volunteers, adjunct chaplains, and clergy from a variety of denominations.

While HUP has never been affiliated with any religion, the earliest published annual reports from the hospital’s board of managers—going back to 1876—mention informal worship services held on the wards on Sunday afternoons. Today, in addition to a range of Christian sects, Jewish, Islamic, Buddhist, and Quaker faiths are also represented among the pastoral care staff and volunteers.

Chaplains circulate through the patient floors daily. Between May 2010 and May 2011, the team at HUP provided more than 33,000 pastoral contacts with patients and families. Every patient-admissions packet contains information about the availability of interfaith pastoral care, and medical personnel as well as patients can initiate the service.

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

Staff Trauma Chaplain David Henfield: “When you witness the vulnerability of man, you realize that we all must depend on each other to survive.”



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  ©2011 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 10/28/11