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Spiritual Sustenance
The director of pastoral care and his team are available 24/7 to help patients—and employees—through rough times

Uwe Scharf chats with patient Gail Vanderbie. “I don’t go to church much,” she says, “but I feel God’s presence.”

Early on a crisp fall morning, pastoral care resident Mankekolo Mahlangu-Ngcobo gathers notes from her night on call and dashes to Blalock 170 for morning report. Between the two codes, one fatal, she’d managed to doze for only a few hours.

Now it’s time to distribute the yellow referral cards to the chaplains and pastoral care residents arriving to learn which patients need emotional and spiritual support. After reporting the events of the previous night, Mahlangu-Ngcobo closes the session as is the custom: “Now let us pray for those who died last night.”

Prayer is pastoral care’s hallmark. But helping people cope with illness, loss, personal problems or their relationship with God goes way beyond supplications. Thanks to Rev. Uwe (OO-vay) Scharf, Hopkins Hospital’s director of pastoral care, staff chaplains and residents in clinical pastoral education (CPE) are more accessible than ever to help patients and staff navigate life’s unpredictable turns.

“Every day,” observes Scharf, “I see people come to the hospital in distress, with great anxieties—and with a lot of hope. Sometimes all a patient needs is empathy.”

Most, though—even those who deny any belief in God—are eager to talk about spirituality, Scharf has found. Still, he counsels his residents to broach the subject delicately. Only after getting to know patients a little and learning how they feel about their illness does he ask, “Are you a person of faith? Is spirituality important to you? If so, how does it help you with your illness?”

Very rarely has Scharf been asked to leave, though the affable reverend would be hard to dismiss. A native of Germany and son of a Baptist minister, Scharf attended an international Baptist seminary in Switzerland. Academically rigorous, the small school had students from 20 different nations. It was there that Scharf met his wife, a practicing Hindu. They married in the United States and moved to Charlottesville, Va., where Scharf earned a Ph.D. in religious studies. He embraced the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and became an ordained minister in that denomination in 1997.

morning report
At pastoral care’s morning report, Mankekolo Mahlangu-Ngcobo hands out referral cards to, from left, John Ponnola, Uwe Scharf, Sarah Diehl, Bennie Thomas, Phyllis Radlinski, Greg Ferri and Paula Teague.

Before coming to Hopkins almost a year ago, Scharf was a clinical pastoral education supervisor at Duke University Hospital and administrative chaplain for its heart center. Having a glimpse of all these diverse worlds, says Scharf, has helped him professionally: “I try to have an open mind and learn from every encounter.”

“Uwe brings a fresh perspective to Hopkins,” says CPE manager Paula Teague. “He’s committed to raising our profile in spiritual care in education, service and research.”

Pastoral care at Hopkins dates back about 45 years, but the graduate program is just five years old. CPE residents and interns, here for up to a two-year term, handle spiritual care for patients and staff.

Under the initial direction of Clyde Shallenberger, followed by Stephen Mann, the department relied heavily on community clergy. Gradually, staff chaplains were brought in, and pastoral care is now available around the clock. (Building strong relationships with community religious leaders remains a priority, as many visit their hospitalized congregants.) The department has two CPE supervisors, one oncology chaplain, one Catholic and one Episcopal priest, as well as two family advocates who focus on end-of-life care and organ donation.

The CPE supervisors, nationally certified in pastoral care and education, teach in the program. They also sit on hospital committees that tackle anything from accreditation to thorny ethical dilemmas, such as when a patient refuses to accept a blood transfusion for religious reasons.

Residents learn to use insights from theology and behavioral science to guide those in pain. That can mean offering comfort to someone who’s anxious about surgery, frustrated with a loved one or angry with God.

“We have a niche,” says Scharf, “where we can offer support and counseling from an unabashedly spiritual perspective.” That might include administering sacraments and handling advance directives, autopsy requests, religious dietary needs and emergency baptisms for infants on the verge of death.

Of the 12 clergy here now, most are Christian, but diversity rules. Mahlangu-Ngcobo, a Baptist A.M.E. minister, hails from South Africa. The family advocate, also Baptist, grew up in the Congo. A Lutheran resident has Indian roots. Several are from Maryland, including a Catholic priest, a woman rabbi and a Baptist resident who’s learning the intricacies of addictions counseling.

For the past several years, pastoral care has hosted a three-day symposium on one aspect of religion and science. Last year’s conference focused on stem cells. Scharf points to a growing body of literature on the role of spirituality in medicine. One pastoral care resident, for example, is researching the impact of prayer on healing. She’s already documented reduced anxiety, heart rate and blood pressure in her study patients.

Scharf’s pastoral care team is sensitive to all faiths. “I try to be an advocate for any religion and to help patients and families feel that they’re heard. They want someone to respect them and help them relate their experiences to a higher purpose.”

—Judy Minkove

where to pray

Where to Pray

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