Offering comfort for all faiths

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Anne Ball

Chaplains Jack Dunlavey and Stephen Mann work with 35 pastoral care volunteers, including Joan Burleyson and Andy Snope, to offer comfort, support and, sometimes, prayer to patients at Howard County General Hospital.
Photo by Jill Smith

Spending day after day in a hospital bed can be a daunting, dispiriting experience. And winter brings added poignancy, when many patients are unable to join in family gatherings over major holidays.

Fortunately for patients at Howard County General Hospital (HCGH), the Chaplain’s Office offers a program of pastoral care that sends caring volunteers to visit patients in their rooms to offer comfort and support.

These volunteers come from varied faith backgrounds, and have completed a course that meets two hours a week for 12 weeks, covering subjects as varied as crisis intervention, depression, ecumenical prayer and empathetic care.

Their goal is to visit and converse. And, if the patient requests, to pray together.

Rewarding for volunteers

Joan Burleyson, 61, a Columbia resident and retired evaluation psychologist with Montgomery County Public Schools, has been volunteering with the program for three years. After retiring, she decided she wanted to work with adults one-on-one.

Burleyson said she finds this new way to combine her psychology background with her faith very rewarding. “I hear a lot of concerns about loved ones and about pets,” she said. “I basically just listen, but sometimes patients will ask me to pray with them.”

Andy Snope, 77, is a Ph.D. biologist who was on the faculty at the Baltimore campus of the University of Maryland. He retired as Academic Dean at Baltimore County Community College, Essex Campus.

He joined the pastoral care program in 2010 after reading about it in a local newspaper. He describes the training as “intensive and extensive.” And he feels it prepared him for a fulfilling experience of working with patients of many faiths.

“About a year ago, I walked into the room of a Muslim patient who had a dozen or so family and friends gathered around her bed. Her husband asked me to pray for her, and spontaneously everyone held hands,” the Columbia resident said.

“What an experience, not only for the patient, but for me!” Snope said. “It works both ways.”

Both Burleyson and Snope are on a once-a-week visit schedule. They usually visit the same floor each time, which sometimes enables ongoing conversations with patients.

The number of patients a volunteer can visit on any particular day varies, but can be as high as 21. Of course, some patients may be getting treatment in other areas when the visitors arrive.

Comprehensive training

The Pastoral Care Visitors Program, which currently has 35 volunteers, started some 30 years ago. It is under the auspices of the hospital’s Chaplaincy Services office, headed by Chaplain Stephen Mann, 60. Mann oversees the pastoral visitor program as well as other efforts “to match the faith perspective [of visitors] to the multi-cultural patients we have here in the hospital.”

The director of the volunteer program is Chaplain Jack Dunlavey, 73, who will be directing the training program again this spring. Both Mann and Dunlavey are ordained ministers.

The training consists of two six-week courses that meet once a week from 7 to 9 p.m. at the hospital, at 5755 Cedar Lane in Columbia. The training is free, and open (and applicable to) persons of all faiths.

In the first six weeks of training, subjects covered include the grieving process, emergency room services and crisis intervention, hospice care/grief and loss, depression and affective disorders, care for the caregivers, advance directives, living wills, organ and tissue donations, and empathetic and ecumenical care.

In the second part of the course, volunteers are assigned to nursing units to visit patients, followed up by group meetings to discuss medical, ethical, pastoral and personal issues raised during their experiences.

Dunlavey, a retired Navy Department engineer, has been a pastoral care visitor at HCGH for over 17 years. In fact, his connection with the town of Columbia goes back even farther, to when he helped Columbia founder James Rouse put together a non-denominational community church. In those days, Dunlavey commuted on Thursday nights from his job in Crystal City to the hospital to visit patients.

But it was a near-death experience in 2009 that he credits with confirming his commitment to serving God through pastoral care work.

While working on his farm, he became pinned beneath a tractor. Unable to breathe and in what he calls “an altered state of consciousness,” he had visions of his deceased parents, and an out-of-body experience observing the paramedics saving his life.

He said the experience heightened his awareness of the emotions and concerns of patients in the hospital as they confront the physical and spiritual challenges of their illnesses.

A chapel for all faiths

In addition to trained volunteers, the chaplaincy office also maintains a roster of “on call” clergy, including representatives of the Catholic, Jewish, Protestant and Muslim faiths. These are the men and women who come in to officiate at times calling for ritual prayers or ceremonies.

The ecumenical theme is carried out in the hospital chapel as well. Situated on the main floor off the lobby, the chapel features stained glass windows depicting skies and landscapes without any religious symbolism.

Beneath the windows stands a table that can be used as is or covered with a white cloth to function as  an altar. There are candlesticks, crosses, menorahs and other accessories available to enhance the services of whoever may be using the chapel at the time. Hymn books and other materials pertinent to different religions are available too.

“Our chapel vis a place for silence, and a place for conversation,” Mann said. “We want our chapel to be supportive of people’s needs, whatever they may be.”

Those interested in volunteering for the HCGH Pastoral Care Program may contact Dunlavey at (410) 740-7898 or The next training course will take place in the spring.