‘We’re saying the Church is here’
“I spend almost all my time visiting patients. We do not sit and wait for referrals to come to us. We go and see patients. We, ideally, see everybody.”
Father Bob Jones, a chaplain at Los Angeles Ccounty-USC Medical Center the last 17 years — back when one of the busiest public hospitals in the western United States was located in a historic art deco facility on State Street — has his black bag packed and ready to go. It’s stuffed with bottles of holy water, prayer books and holy cards to give away along with a translation of some Zapotec words spoken in the southwestern-central highlands of Mexico and info sheets about what St. Camillus Center for Pastoral Care has to offer.
The 72-year-old Vincentian priest, who looks ten years younger and has a vigorous demeanor, is ready to roll on this early Thursday afternoon in a newer county health-care complex that opened on nearby Marengo Street in 2008.
But first, down here in the chaplain’s office cramped conference room that doubles as a storage closet, he’s got some questions to field from a visitor. He seems OK with that, but also eager to start seeing patients on units 5b and 5c he missed earlier. And all this talk is taking time away from being up on the floors.
“I’m trying to help patients realize that there are people here who are concerned about their spiritual values,” he says. “We identify their religious tradition along the way if possible. But then if somebody is intubated and nonresponsive and is a Catholic, I will attempt to find family and anoint the person with the family there. Otherwise, I will anoint the person without the family, because I think they’d rather have the person anointed than not.”
Anointing and giving Last Rites is just part of his ministry. Father Bob, as he’s known around the sprawling, 530-bed medical center, points out that while he may only “significantly” visit with a dozen patients and their families a day, a couple hundred people, including doctors, nurses, medical assistants and administrators, will see him making his rounds or just walking through the cafeteria.
“And many will recognize this,” he says, fastening his Roman collar. “So we’re saying the Church is here.”
‘We all respect him’
Up on 5b, Father Bob seems a lot more at ease. Nurses in the center island workstation look up smiling, wanting to know how he’s doing. There’s small talk and joking. He asks a couple about their families.
Then it’s into one of the single patient rooms. He speaks to a younger woman in Spanish before turning to the elderly gentleman in bed: “Feeling better? Going home?”
“These things happen, huh?”
The patient nods, sitting up.
The conversation switches back and forth from English to Spanish until the priest begins to back out.
“Gracias. Thank you,” says the man.
Now a male nurse is asking Father Bob if they can take a picture with him. He chuckles walking into their station, where a dozen workers quickly gather around. After, a critical care nurse steps forward. “I just wanted to say that I really appreciate what Father Bob does,” says Nestor Renteria. “He does some extraordinary work here, and he is considered a big asset to our team. We all respect him.
“He does a lot of work with us with a lot of our end of life issues. Very difficult things. He is always somebody we can call to be here and help us out with the situation. We could not do it without him.”
After a moment, Renteria confides, “And he has helped us with our own spirituality. I have come to him regarding personal issues, and he always attempts to hear me. And he shows the same respect to the families.”
Over an unconscious middle-age man in another room hooked up to all kinds of tubes and monitors, whose chart says he speaks only Cantonese, Father Bob makes the sign of the cross. “Bless you with peace and with health, thanking God for life,” he says in a calm voice.
Outside the doorway, the priest explains, “It looks to me as though he’s not responsive. But that’s a dumb thing to say. Because he might be able to open his eyes, might be able to nod even though he’s on a respirator. That happens a decent percentage of the time.”
Later that afternoon in a room on 5c, he puts his hand on the shoulder of the young man lying in bed. “We’re here because the chaplains try to see everybody, because everybody is a child of God,” he says. Then he asks, “Getting better?”
The man tells about the car accident he was in.
After a joke about California drivers, Father Bob turns serious. “We come by to let you know we chaplains are here. And we keep you in our prayers every day. We begin our day with a time of prayer for you all.”
‘Am I dying?’
The bedside scene is basically repeated four more times before the Vincentian cleric sets down his black bag for good, resting an elbow against a nurses’ station. “What’s important to me is what the patient or family wants to say, and supporting them,” he notes. “And to let them know that we are here and we care.”
The priest readily knows, however, that his very presence can be unsettling.
“The assumption is I’m there because the patient is really sick, and that’s not the case. I don’t know that,” he reports with a shrug. “But that’s a little hard on them. One in a hundred will say, ‘Am I dying?’ and I’ll say, ‘Maybe I’ll die before you do.’ So I never offer the Last Rites right away. But, see, the advantage of being here 17 years is that the nurses know me and they’ll tell me when someone is dying.”
The biggest challenge in Father Bob’s walking-around hospital ministry isn’t all that different from one of the primary challenges in life itself. He wishes he could do more, help more people who are hurting, bring peace to more suffering human lives.
“The sadnesses are like the death of a little baby,” he explains. “The sadnesses when the whole thing shouldn’t have happened. The whole violence thing, of course, when there’s a crying mother with her 20-year-old who was killed in a drive-by. Also, to a lesser degree, if people would have come here six months earlier, maybe they wouldn’t have needed to come here at all.
“Another challenge is sometimes when I know a bit more of the story than the family knows, or I know more than a family or patient is interested in talking about like car accidents, suicides, HIV status. Stuff like that.”
So what’s kept Father Bob Jones at Los Angeles’ storied medical center that has served the county’s down-and-out since 1878, when a 100-bed hospital opened on Mission Road, and then became affiliated with the University of Southern California Medical School seven years later?
“The smile on people’s faces, after an interaction with them that they have found helpful or peace-giving,” he replies, without hesitation. “Of course, the biggest piece of peace news they get here is ‘You can go home this afternoon.’ But aside from that, the depth of what we attempt to get across as chaplains here is ‘God is with you. You’re doing the best you can. Keep trying. Keep thanking God for life.’”
On Aug. 24 at 4 p.m., Archbishop José Gomez will preside at a Mass of Thanksgiving celebrating the 60th anniversary of St. Camillus Parish and the 400th anniversary of the patron saint of the sick and medical profession. Past and present chaplains and outreach partners will be recognized. A dinner will follow in the center’s tented parking lot (1911 Zonal Ave, Los Angeles) Information: StCamillusCenter.org/60th or call (323) 225-4461, ext. 111.