From the archives: Touchstone of faith

Baltimore Sun reporter

At dawn, the heavy front doors are unlocked. Soon the familiar rhythm comes to life in the administration building at Johns Hopkins Hospital. Voices on the security guard's radio echo in the quiet corridors. A woman's heels clack against the marble floor. Students cut through on their way to classes. Physicians hurry to surgery.

It is here, at the intersection of six major hallways, underneath Hopkins' historic dome, that even the busiest people take a moment to pause in the presence of a towering statue of Christ.

One by one, dozens upon dozens reach out for a fleeting touch of the cool gray marble.

They place their palms on the statue's right foot or rub the long robe draped over Christ's muscular shoulders. Patients wearing slippers and dragging IV poles walk softly into the atrium, craning their necks to look up into the face of Christ.

They are seeking luck, power, faith, hope, and healing. They leave flowers, pictures and prayers at the statue's feet. Few will go away untouched. For in this citadel of high-tech medicine, the statue of Christ has evolved into a spiritual touchstone.

"You walk in, and you see those arms outstretched, and you know you're going to be all right. You feel like he's hugging you," whispered Sandra Keller, 52, a Delaware woman who is recovering from severe complications from a recent kidney transplant.

Perched on one of the two blue leather chairs placed near the statue, her hands shaking from medication, she savored the warm breeze coming from the open front door.

"I just feel like I've been enclosed in a nice little bubble of comfort, like no harm can come to me."

Called "Christus Consolator" or "The Divine Healer," the statue turns 100 this year, coinciding with an emerging national movement to infuse more spirituality into medicine.

"Pure technical care is wonderful, but we think that's incomplete," said Maryann Fralic, Hopkins' vice president for nursing, whose office is near the statue.

"You have a patient, you have a family. We get some of the sickest patients in the world. We need to be more than a technical facility."

Spiritual search

As part of its re-engineering effort, Hopkins has created a task force to integrate spirituality into every phase of health care, from admission to discharge.

Doctors see the statue as a physical embodiment of that compassion.

"In this day and age of the bottom line being the important thing, I think it's useful to have a piece of art that reminds us of what medicine is all about," said Dr. Victor A. McKusick, a pioneer in medical genetics who has been at Hopkins for 53 years.

Some surgeons stop by before going into the operating room to finger the hem of Christ's garment.

"The statue means something different to almost every person," said Clyde Shallenberger, who was the chaplain at Hopkins for 30 years. "It's just too big to be ignored."

Standing 10 1/2 feet, the sculpture was carved out of a single piece of fine Italian marble. It is a copy of a work by the Danish artist Bertel Thorwaldsen. Etched in its pedestal are the words: "Come unto me, all ye that are weary and heavy laden and I will give you rest."

Those who get lost in the hospital and stumble upon it find themselves compelled to return.

Tour buses have made it a routine stop. Business people say visits to the statue, and their faith, have helped them win tough contracts. One man whose wife was too ill to get to the atrium used a video camera to film the statue as he circled it and sang a hymn. F. Scott Fitzgerald made the sculpture a setting for a short story, "One Interne," writing that the "gigantic Christ gestured in marble pity over the entrance hall."

'People still believe'

"He's the best-known man in this whole hospital," said Jimmy Nahrgang, the Federal Express man whose regular route includes Hopkins.

"It's good to know that people still believe."

Depending on how his day goes, the Glen Burnie man, 37, will either briefly bow his head, or leap up to give Jesus a high-five.

Although the statue is a Christian symbol, many think "the Divine Healer" stands for the compassion and humility honored in all religions.

People say they come to pay homage not to the statue but to what it represents. They write personal notes asking for healing, or peace.

Grayson Gilbert, 6, first saw the statue in October, after a diagnosis of a rare pancreatic tumor. In February, before an operation, the Towson boy surprised his mother by asking, "Mommy, before I go to surgery, can we make a note to Jesus?"

During the nearly nine-hour operation, his parents, Jodie and Stephen Gilbert, stayed near the statue.

Surgeons discovered the tumor had closed off a key vein.

"The baby was on death's door," said Dr. Paul Colombani, director of pediatric surgery at the Johns Hopkins Children's Center, who was called in to graft on another vein.

Over the next few days, a network of supporting blood vessels tied off during the surgery grew back and opened up.

"Somehow we were able to pull him through it," Colombani said, "and you never know 100 percent what did it."

In April, when the boy experienced more difficulties, this time from chemotherapy, the family again sought solace by leaving a note. "Dear Lord Jesus, please bless Grayson and may he live a long and healthy life. Our thoughts and prayers are with you. Love, Mom."

The next day, Grayson improved.

Recently, after a doctor's visit to prepare for radiation, the boy asked to go to the statue. There, Grayson placed his hand on the right foot, an area worn white by the thousands who have touched it. His mother placed her hand over his.

In that moment, they became oblivious to the passers-by, the sirens wailing outside, the workers on the three balconies above that ascend to the dome.

"Say, 'Thank you, Jesus, for healing me,' " his mother said as they rubbed the huge foot together.

On Wednesday, Grayson left another note: "If you could, just heal the other kids. Thank you very much."

Linking strangers

Many of the people who visit the statue read these requests and include them in their own prayers. It is one of the many ways that people's reactions to the "Christus Consolator" create a domino effect, subtly altering relationships and weaving together strangers' lives.

Rose Price, 34, who delivers mail and packages all over Hopkins, says she touches the statue, and when she sees another worker do the same, it changes the way they interact later.

"When I run into them throughout the workday, it's like they have a good spirit, a good sense about things," said Price.

Norma Green, a 30-year Hopkins employee whose office is nearby, said, "If I go by it 50 times a day, I'll make sure that I touch it 50 times a day. It's not a habit, it's a necessity."

Steven Kojack, 31, was skeptical when he started working as the security guard at that entrance about three years ago.

"I don't believe in statues," said the Dundalk man. "If they're doing it to get power, they could rub my big toe and probably get as much power."

Gradually, though, Kojack found himself drawn in.

He started to say prayers with families, while keeping one eye open -- and trained on the front door. He tries to calm the distraught.

"Sometimes knowing the statue is there helps me to be a better person," said Kojack.

But not everyone's spirits are lifted. William McKenna's relatives wheeled him to the atrium after seven weeks confined to a hospital bed with complications from diabetes. Rubbing the statue, McKenna, 60, of Pasadena declared in a hoarse voice: "I'd like to get out of here."

Others won't touch the statue.

"You see it every day, and it's just like a fixture," said Paul Eberling, whose office is close by. "All the smokers touch it. I don't smoke. I live clean."

Richard Cervantes of Toledo, Ohio, had surgery at Hopkins to remove one of the five malignant tumors in his brain. Hugging his wife near the statue, the father of three acknowledged the steep odds he faces.

Struggling to speak because of the tumors, he managed, "Just trust Jesus."

That feeling is reflected in recent research that shows daily prayer, visits by chaplains and other types of spirituality can keep people well, hasten recoveries and get patients out of the hospital faster.

The findings are behind the shift to a greater emphasis on spiritual care.

More health institutions are calling for chaplains, often because they see it as a way to save money, said Josephine Schrader, interim director of College of Chaplains, a national accrediting body based outside Chicago.

For the first time, the agency that sets national standards for hospitals has put in its 1996 manual explicit examples of spiritual counseling and pastoral care.

At Hopkins, the Rev. Steven L. Mann, director of pastoral care, said that this summer, when a third full-time chaplain is added, they will become a daily presence in all seven intensive care units and both emergency rooms.

Last year, the medical school offered its first religion and medicine course.

"In all world religions, healing and spirituality were the same. The doctor and priest were the same," said Mann. "Only recently did we split them."

Unlike many other hospitals, Hopkins had a secular beginning.

'God Has Come to Hopkins'

When the university opened in 1876 without religious affiliation, and without any benediction or invocation at opening ceremonies, the Baltimore community was upset.

To help quell criticism that lingered for years, Daniel C. Gilman, the first president of the university and the hospital, proposed that someone donate a copy of the "Christus Consolator." He made the request when the hospital opened in 1889.

William Wallace Spence, a successful businessman and benefactor, agreed to pay the $5,360 to have a copy made. After nine years of work, the finished sculpture arrived in the fall of 1896 at Fells Point, where it was put on rollers and taken up Broadway to the hospital.

At the time, 601 N. Broadway was the main entrance. Doors had to be taken off to fit the statue inside. Three brick columns were installed under the marble floor to reinforce it. According to Mann, one newspaper's headline the next day read: "God Has Come to Hopkins."

Over the years, the statue has become a meeting place. Nurses used to report there for patient assignments. The choir of the nearby Memorial Baptist Church gathers to sing carols at the statue's feet every Christmas Eve, a custom started in 1926 by a grateful mother whose son, Abraham Lincoln Johnson, survived severe burns.

Natalie Tyson, 33, who grew up within blocks of Hopkins, remembers running through the hospital and playing hide-and-seek with her friends. She was afraid to touch the statue then, fearing it might crumble. Now, as one of the workers responsible for cleaning the area, she loves it.

But she wants this Christ to have pupils. His eyes are blank. One worker explains that makes it appear that Christ is looking each visitor in the eye, even if the person approaches from the side.

For Elton Fitzgerald, that anatomical detail isn't an issue. He was late recently for a doctor's appointment, but said he always takes time to honor the sculpture.

"Even though it's marble stone, in the inside of my heart, I'm touching him for real," the Baltimore man, 38, said solemnly. "When I look in his eyes, it's like he's alive."

As the afternoon wears into evening, as nurses and staffers leave, many touch the marble. On the night shift, Joan Jefferson takes over Kojack's job. Almost a thousand people have walked through the atrium this day, but now, only a few pass by. In the quiet, even the hum of the chandeliers' electric lights can be heard.

Other security guards often comment on the solitude, but Jefferson says, "I never feel afraid over here, because I always feel he's looking out for me."

Outside, the moon is full. It is nearing 10 p.m.

Delores Jackson, 48, is almost done with her cleaning shift. After she was diagnosed with a life-threatening illness last year, her faith was shaken.

She turned to the statue.

"I could be feeling depressed, and I'll just maybe rub his feet, and it just feels like something goes through my body," said Jackson, her dark, dewy eyes fixed on Christ. "I feel so much lighter."

Now, every night she prays here, gently patting the marble folds of the garment. "Before I leave, it's like I know there is a God somewhere," she said, "and it's beautiful."

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