Even the people closest to Mark Bartel have a hard time understanding how he handles the heartbreak that comes with being a pediatric chaplain.
When he first entered the field, his wife worried how it might affect him and whether sadness would follow him home. His older brother put it more bluntly: “I know you’re doing important work, but I don’t ever want to hear about it. Don’t tell me anything.”
Now almost 30 years into his career, Bartel—who manages Spiritual Care at Arnold Palmer Medical Center in Orlando—has mastered the art of selective sharing. He’s seen plenty of happy endings, but arguably his most poignant cases are linked to his work in palliative care, supporting seriously ill or dying children and their families, as well as hospital colleagues caring for them.
Bartel said those experiences have affirmed his belief that we all have key spiritual needs central to our humanity: the need for beauty, integrity, faith, hope and love…
Today was a fairly typical Monday in that I darted around every unit at the hospital where I proudly serve as a pediatric chaplain. Due to a visit with a patient’s mom Friday afternoon while the patient napped, I knew one goal for the day was to tell a Godly Play story to a young girl on our Acute Care floor. It took a few visits before she and I got some time together. She was either asleep, in the playroom, or working with Occupational Therapy each time I stopped by in the morning. After lunch, the timing was right.
I grabbed a pillow case from the cart of clean linens on my way to her room, and then we chatted while we cleared off her hospital tray. The tray was between us, and I laid the pillow case on her tray before bringing the metallic gold box out of my “Chaplain Jessica” monogrammed L.L. Bean tote. I placed it on the pillow case to keep Infectious Disease and me happy, and we began “The Parable of the Good Shepherd.”
We paused for a second to move her chest tube from underneath the tray wheel and went right back into it. Her key words during wondering were “scared” and “safe.” After the sheep, green grass, the shepherds, and everything else was safely back in their box, I gave the patient blank paper and coloring pencils. She drew her mother. I asked her what she wanted me to tell God when we pray, and she said, “That I feel safe when I’m scared. And can I go to the playroom again?” She was suddenly ready for the playroom, and I headed to PICU, one floor below.
A few nurses and Respiratory Therapists were at the Pediatric ICU (PICU) nurses’ station, and they happily greeted me. They noticed my tote bag and asked if I’d read them a story. My “Chaplain Jessica” bag has become pretty synonymous with activities and beautiful children’s books I use for spiritual play. I use “I wonder” phrases with every book, regardless if it has anything to do with Godly Play, and those “I wonder” statements have opened some heavy doors. I started pulling out some of the books that were in the bag today, and everyone looked wide-eyed and scared at the first one, designed for helping oncology patients find hope. We went through the titles and how I use each book until I said, “And then there’s a Godly Play story in there.”
“What’s that?” Asked a PICU nurse. I beamed and explained it. “Tell us that one!” Another nurse said. While I ran to get a pillow case, the first nurse said, “Oh my goodness, y’all! She’s so excited!” The area was a bit awkward, so I sat on the desk of the nurses’ station, while three nurses and two Respiratory Therapists scooted chairs close to me. I told “The Parable of the Good Shepherd,” and it was powerful. These are nurses that are trained to make quick decisions to save lives, and they carry heavy stories. They were still. They were mesmerized. Only one spoke during the wondering, and the rest were frozen and fixated. One person had tears in her eyes that she never let fall.
After the story was in the gold box, I shared more about Godly Play and my experience with it. I’m a Godly Play newbie, but every moment with it changes me. I told my co-workers about the Godly Play Clinical Training I attended. During the training, my friend and fellow pediatric chaplain, Ryan Campbell, told “The Parable of the Good Shepherd” to a room full of chaplains. We processed how the story made us feel, and I remember telling Ryan that I didn’t think he was harsh enough when he put the dark places away. I wanted him to smash the dark places into the box and destroy them once and for all. Every piece was put away just as Volume 3 teaches, but, in my heart, the dark places needed to be treated with much more disgust.
When I shared that reaction with the group today, one woman nodded her head emphatically with her eyes focused on the box. She got it. She stared at the box like she could see straight through the wood and was able to destroy whatever that place was for her. After some silence, she said, “What’s this called again?” And she typed it into her phone.
I had to leave the unit to go lead a weekly staff care event in the EC, but I heard one of the PICU nurses behind me say “I wish I had her when I was a kid.” Godly Play truly reaches everyone who will be still enough to wonder.
– Chaplain Jessica Shannon, MDiv, BCC
To request Godly Play Clinical Training at your hospital or medical center, please contact:
Chaplain Ryan Campbell, MTC, BCC
Children’s Medical Center Dallas
Center for the Spirituality of Children
The Pediatric Chaplains Network have helped to develop a therapeutic play kit with the Wilbert Foundation. Through the Foundation’s generosity, Bertie Bear kits are available at no cost to grief care providers and other therapeutic care professionals.
Each Bertie Bear kit comes with the bear in a fold out “home,” a magnetic white board, coloring book, stickers, and more. The activities are appropriate for children ages 4 and up and can provide them different modes of expression depending upon what is needed on a given day. In vetting this kit, chaplains have used this tool in situations ranging from coping with chronic illness to traumatic loss.
We believe Bertie Bear may be helpful to you and hope you will consider utilizing this functional, high-quality therapeutic play kit.
Information on ordering sets of Bertie Bear can be found on the Wilbert Foundation website: http://www.wilbertfoundation.org.
I am also happy to help connect you or provide you with useful guidance on implementation.
It’s like riding a roller coaster when you have a sick child. Some days you are up, and some days you are down. My son’s name is Kenny, and today he is a happy and active 3 year-old. He adores his big sister Maddie. But Kenny had a rough start. In fact, after he was first born, I spent many days feeling absolutely terrified.
Kenny has a congenital heart defect. It was found at 27 weeks and required surgery. He has had three open heart surgeries and has spent months in the hospital. Because Kenny was in Advocate Children’s Hospital, so was I. The doctors, nurses and staff were incredible. I am so grateful for all they did to help my family through such a difficult time.
But there was a special group of caregivers in the hospital who don’t get a lot of attention. In my journey with Kenny, one of those caregivers, in particular, had a very powerful impact on me.
Every once in a while, a face would appear at the door. I had never requested a visit from a hospital chaplain. I never actually realized that I needed one. But, she was such a great listener. Through all the stressful days and nights with Kenny, there were times when I felt like I had no one to talk to. It wasn’t their fault, but friends and family just couldn’t fully understand what I was going through. But Reverend Eliza Stoddard Leatherberry was very non-threatening, just always willing to pull up a chair and listen.
In the months I sat by Kenny’s hospital bed, I often felt surrounded by sadness. It was so hard to fathom why babies and children had to suffer so early in life—and why still others didn’t make it. There were moments when I questioned everything. I remember wanting answers. It felt good to speak up to Eliza and to be honest about my feelings. She never judged what I was saying, never preached or made me feel uncomfortable. She was always respectful—she just listened and helped me walk through some very tough feelings. She prayed for my baby, and I got great comfort from that.
Today, Kenny is doing well in pre-school and has reached almost every milestone. He likes to say he has a “special” heart. Indeed he does. And one day, I will tell him about all the special people who helped take care of us, like Eliza. I often think about other mothers who may be sitting by their child’s hospital bed today. I wish I could tell them all how much they might benefit should a chaplain appear at their door.