Minister offers solace to cancer patients


The Rev. Kenneth Phelps rounds a corner on the sixth floor of the north wing at Harbor Hospital Center and spies a family holding a vigil outside a patient's room. He stops, asks the nurses what is going on. The patient is in a coma, dying.

Mr. Phelps comforts the family. He says a prayer for them and whispers another into the dying man's ear. Then he quietly steps out of the room, leaving them to their grief. He tells the family he will be nearby if they need him. The patient died later that day.

This is Harbor's oncology ward, where cancer patients reside. It is also where Mr. Phelps -- one of 23 pastors, deacons, nuns, elders and lay people who serve as volunteers in Harbor's pastoral care division -- has chosen to do his ministry.

The job "takes its toll. It's not easy for them," says Melcena F. Miller, coordinator of patient relations.

On this day, many of the sixth floor's patients are asleep. Some are dying.

"You can't do this unless you learn to die yourself. A lot of times I'm holding the hand of a person who's dying. That's going to be me one day," says Mr. Phelps, 72, who wears his white hair trimmed short.

"You really have to feel you're called for this, and after all these years I feel God has directed me here. There are times you cry with the family," says Mr. Phelps, a Baptist, who entered the seminary at age 58.

The pastoral care division started in 1985 after the Rev. James Linthicum, then a pastor at a Methodist church in Linthicum suggested the idea to the hospital. The pastors come from various faiths -- charismatic, Baptist, Catholic. All try to keep the patients' spirits high by stopping by their rooms to chat and take their minds off their worries.

"We may start talking about crabbing or something like that. They crab and fish off this shore, which is a good sight for these people to see," says Mr. Phelps, looking out at a man standing knee-deep in the Patapsco River, crabbing.

"I know medicine is really turning toward holistics, not just meeting the needs of the body, but the spirit. Man is made up of the body, the mind and the spirit, and you have to minister to all three," says the Rev. Mark A. Burlingame, who usually works in the intensive care unit on the third floor.

"I like to go where people are hurting the most," says Mr. Burlingame, 40, a dark-haired, heavy-set charismatic preacher. "I'll go to the nurses station and ask who needs a visit today, who's down."

Because hospitals remind people of their frailty, he says, most patients are glad to have visits from the pastors.

On a recent day, Mr. Phelps visited Kathleen U. Gray, 53, of Arnold and Angela Schwartz, 84, of Brooklyn Park. You would never know from their quick chatter and humor that both women were fighting cancer.

Mrs. Gray was diagnosed in 1990 with cancer in her right breast. She thinks doctors took care of that. Two years ago, cancer appeared in her liver. Tuesday, she lay in bed, an IV drip beside her as part of her chemotherapy treatment.

Both women are Catholic and say a visit the previous day from the Rev. Charles Klein boosted their spirits.

"It just makes you feel like somebody cares," says Mrs. Gray, a bespectacled woman with a lively sense of humor. "I feel it's a case where they're here on a neutral basis and you can almost say anything."

"I can't say to my husband, 'Maybe in two years I won't be here.' But you can to someone else who's not so involved in your life," she says.

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