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Dome - Keeping Them in Her Prayers

Dome November 2014

Keeping Them in Her Prayers

Date: November 6, 2014

During his month-long hospital stay for cancer treatment, Steve Hess of Quarryville, Pennsylvania, welcomed Rhonda Cooper to offer prayers for his recovery.
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During his month-long hospital stay for cancer treatment, Steve Hess of Quarryville, Pennsylvania, welcomed Rhonda Cooper to offer prayers for his recovery.

With her luminous eyes and Southern charm, Rhonda Cooper seems like the kind of person you can trust with any confidence. This quality serves her well in her daily work as Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center’s chaplain. Shaken by deteriorating health or impending death, many patients, families and staff members request her help dealing with their spiritual struggles and darkest fears. Others simply ask her to keep them in her prayers. Regardless of the situation, Cooper says she spends most of her time “listening very deeply to what people are willing to share.” 

Growing up in Knoxville, Tennessee, Cooper felt a call to the ministry during her college years at Wheaton College in Illinois. An ordained United Methodist minister, she served as a pastor in Tennessee and southwest Virginia for 15 years before becoming a hospital chaplain in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. She assumed her position at the Kimmel Cancer Center in 2005. 

Along with her ministry duties, Cooper mentors chaplaincy students who rotate through The Johns Hopkins Hospital’s Department of Spiritual Care and Chaplaincy and supports the Cancer Center’s Hope Project, which promotes efforts that reinforce hope and commitment to patients’ spiritual needs. She and her colleagues representing various faiths are available 24/7 for patients, families and staff members.

Cooper lives in Fells Point with her husband and is a “proud aunt” to four nephews. Dome sat down with her to learn more about her work, outlook on life and why she considers her job at the Cancer Center so enriching. 

Can you share one of your most meaningful experiences?

I remember a middle-aged patient from another part of the country who was diagnosed with a severe form of leukemia. He had been raised Episcopalian by faithful parents but had lost touch with his faith. He was alone in his hospital room one day. I introduced myself and told him that if he ever needed a prayer, he should let me know. One day, he asked me to pray with him. That started him reconnecting with the faith of his childhood. I believe he found peace before he died. That very much touched me.

What can a chaplain do for cancer patients?

Cancer patients feel a range of emotions—from guilt and anger to isolation. Besides offering comfort and prayers during times of spiritual distress and anxiety, our chaplains can ensure that patients’ religious traditions, like Communion or Passover seder, are observed during hospital stays. We can also support family and friends and discuss end-of-life issues.

Can you provide some examples of programs you’ve launched at the hospital that have lifted spirits?

The annual Service of Remembrance provides great comfort to family members who have lost loved ones who were cancer patients, as well as to staff members. I’ve also worked with a team to introduce the AMEN (Affirm, Meet, Educate, No matter what) protocol. It’s a tool to help doctors, nurses and other providers talk to seriously ill patients whose families believe that a miracle may cure them, despite medical evidence that suggests otherwise. If the doctor is dismissive of God or the person’s beliefs, that will negatively affect the relationship. The goal of the conversation between provider and the patient or family is to stay connected, not to debate whether miracles can actually happen. 

Ever have a crisis of faith?

Definitely. I’ve asked myself, “Am I going to stay true to this faith, even if I have questions of God, even when bad things happen to good people?” Yet even in the face of my questioning, it is my faith that gives me hope, meaning, and the inspiration and focus to continue in this work that I love. 

Why do you appreciate hospital work?

United Methodist pastors believe we’re not only called to serve our churches but also the world. Working in the hospital—wow—this is my parish. All these different people with different beliefs and different crises, stresses and joys…this is my parish. I also feel connected with other caregivers and providers working for a common goal. It makes you feel as if you’re making a difference, even if just a little bit.

If someone asks you to give him or her a blessing, what do you do?

I ask God to give him or her peace and the ability to get through difficult times. I try to be sensitive to feelings, hopes and fears, regardless of a person’s religion.

What might surprise people about what you do?

Often when I tell people I work in a cancer center, they’ll say, “Oh, that must be so depressing.” But for me it’s the most rewarding thing in the world. I’m so lucky to meet patients and their families from all different walks of life. Also, I’ve found that staff members need prayer and time to talk as much as our patients and families do. That’s why I’m late for this interview: A nurse who was heartbroken over the loss of a patient stopped me to ask if I could lead her and several other caregivers in prayer.

—Judy F. Minkove