part 2 of 2
Doug entered the Washington Hospital Center program for pastoral care in September 1987. For his field training he was sent across the street to the National Rehabilitation Hospital. He got off to a rocky start, though, when he was told to put together a Sunday service for the chapel.
"Our first hymn," Doug announced that morning, "will be `Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus.'"
Then he looked up and realized his mistake. He was in a rehabilitation hospital, and the room was full of people in wheelchairs. Stand up for Jesus? What had he been thinking?
Doug stammered an apology to the amused gathering. "When I think of standing up for Jesus," he said, relieved by their apparent good humor, "I don't think of it as a physical thing, but standing up for my faith and my beliefs."
From then on, he resolved to read the text of every song, every scripture that he used. It forced him to reexamine the words on which his faith was based. If he cited certain biblical verses, he wanted to believe what he was reading. If he introduced songs, he wanted to believe what he was singing.
Even an old favorite like "Amazing Grace," with its refrain of "save a wretch like me," carried a message he didn't want to send to suffering patients. So he began asking them to pick the music. Usually someone asked to sing "The Old Rugged Cross."
So I'll cherish the old rugged cross,
'til my trophies at last I lay down.
I will cling to the old rugged cross,
and exchange it some day for a crown.
The song seemed to have a special appeal for patients who were seen by others, and often by themselves, as physically handicapped. Their ailments were the cross they bore, and they looked forward to the day when they could lay it down for a new life, new bodies, new legs.
In the meantime, though, what Doug heard over and over again was, "I can deal with it." Most patients didn't waste time asking why bad things happened--they were too busy getting on with the business of living.
At the rehabilitation hospital, Doug didn't often deal with patients facing death. But it was a dying man who taught him the most about life.
Daniel Yoshida was a Japanese-American in his mid-thirties who had been admitted to the hospital with a tumor on his spinal cord. The tumor was inoperable and prevented Daniel from being in any position other than on his stomach. He was in constant pain as the cancer wrapped itself around his spinal cord, slowly paralyzing him. Within a matter of months it would cut the cord in two and he would die.
As Daniel's torment increased, his wife abandoned him and even refused to bring their child for a visit. His friends and the rest of his family fell by the wayside, too. Besides the pain, the only constant in his life was Doug Overall, who usually visited once a day. And when he couldn't visit, he called.
They were both Redskins fans, and Doug spent every Sunday afternoon in Daniel's room cheering the television set. In January Doug arranged for superstar lineman Dexter Manley to visit.
At his worst moments, Daniel complained that life had been unfair. Doug helped him work through the anger. "Yes, it is unfair," he agreed. "No one should have to suffer like you have." Bad things happen to good people. Somehow, that acknowledgment was comforting to them both. Asking why would have been a waste of time; accepting it allowed them to move on.
Doug and Daniel talked about life. They recalled their childhoods and their dreams...and how those dreams had changed. They talked about the legacies they wanted to leave behind: Daniel said he wanted to be remembered in his eulogy, which he asked Doug to deliver, as a compassionate man who loved life.
They didn't always talk. Sometimes it was enough for Doug to sit at Daniel's bedside while he rested, or they'd play a quiet game of checkers. Daniel often wanted Doug to read from a book of Japanese death poems:
To depart while seated or standing is all one
All I shall leave behind me is a heap of bones.
In empty space, I twist and soar
and come down with a roar of thunder to the sea.
As the poem suggested, an honorable death for a Japanese was to be met seated or standing. Daniel said he was troubled that when death came for him, it would find him on his stomach.
Doug assured Daniel that he was as brave and honorable a man as any. Despite his moments of anger and regret, he had remained life-affirming and was always more concerned with how Doug and other staff members were dealing with the horror of his disease than he was with his own suffering. Standing up for Jesus or standing to meet death were just metaphors for having the courage to live one's convictions.
Doug's supervisor in the pastoral training program, Jan Humphries, had been trying to get him to deal with patient concerns on an emotional level rather than a clinical one. During their weekly meetings, she was always less interested in what he had said to a patient than how he felt about being involved with that patient. She emphasized the difference between doing a pastoral task and actually being with people. As a friend. As a guide out of the darkness. As a fellow human. But it was a difficult transition for Doug.
When Daniel died that spring, however, Doug wept at his bedside. He was glad that the tormented body of his friend was at last without pain, and he was grateful to discover that he had the strength for this work. When everyone else had abandoned Daniel, Doug had remained. That was his gift to Daniel.
Daniel Yoshida's gift to Doug was the discovery that he also had the soul necessary for this work. The tears he wept were Daniel's gift, a treasure that would find its way to hundreds of others in the years to come.
Doug continued his pastoral-care training at Emory University, one of the nation's top teaching hospitals. He'd chosen Emory because of its oncology program; his father had developed throat cancer while Doug was in Washington.
On the oncology floor, Doug found himself facing death on a daily basis. But now he allowed himself to get close to the people who needed him--a legacy from his friend Daniel. Sometimes they wanted to talk out their feelings of anger, or sadness, or guilt. Patients often wanted someone present but were reluctant to subject family members to more stress, so they called on Doug as they grew closer to death. In the presence of eternity, he learned how to be quiet and listen.
Some clergymen had a scripture or parable ready to answer every question. Some said that suffering was punishment for past sins. Doug believed none of that. Bad things happened to good people. Accepting that was what allowed him to go on and make a difference in people's lives.
In his work he found parallels to music. Just as there are multiple layers to a musical score--different instruments, different rhythms combining into a single purpose--there were different layers to chaplaincy. He had to find ways to make people feel safe in their darkest hour. By just being there, he could show them that they were not alone.
And even in the midst of the misery, Doug felt the presence of God and a calming certainty that there was indeed a master plan, even if they were all too close to see it.
Andrea Mysen is three days away from graduating from the Denver Seminary with a master's in counseling. Curious to see what went on in pastoral care, she applied for the training program at Denver General run by Doug Overall.
She was attracted to the hospital because of its diversity--racial, cultural, socioeconomic. But after meeting Doug and witnessing the passion he had for his work, she realized she was getting a better education than she had hoped for. "I learned the power of simply walking beside people when they are hurting," she says. "I learned the power of being silent, not something a counselor is used to doing."
Doug teaches as he was taught. At weekly meetings, he asks Andrea how her experiences with patients and their families have affected her personally.
"Through him, I've come to realize that we are all in process," she says. "My formal education is not nearly as important to this work as the person I am and the person I will become."
On the afternoon of Sunday, November 15, 1987, Continental Airlines Flight 1713 to Boise crashed on takeoff at Stapleton International Airport. There were 81 people on board. Twenty-six were pronounced dead at the scene, others died during rescue attempts, and 34 were transported to area hospitals, including Denver General.
But there were other casualties as well. Airport rescuers and hospital medical personnel soon began to exhibit signs of stress: nightmares, loss of appetite, depression.
A review of the incident raised the need for pastoral care at Denver General. With funding from the Colorado Trust, the Colorado Council of Churches and the Denver Department of Health and Hospitals worked together to create a chaplaincy program at DGH. Nearly a year after the crash, a woman was given the job--but she lasted only a year before deciding she wanted to return to parish ministry.
Doug Overall was working at Presbyterian/St. Luke's Hospital in Denver when the DGH job opened. It appealed to him for several reasons. The pastoral project was in its infancy, which meant he would be able to develop new programs, including training for seminary students. He wanted to continue work in oncology, and DGH had an excellent reputation in that field. But most important, it was the area's largest trauma center. And wherever there was death and grief, that's where he needed to be.
Doug was offered the job at Denver General. But before he accepted it, a friend who'd lived in the city for some time warned him to first spend fifteen minutes sitting in the hospital lobby.
He took his friend up on the challenge and watched as people came to DGH for help. They were poor. Some were homeless. Some were junkies. Others belonged to gangs and sold drugs. Some were children who had been neglected and abused; others were elderly who had been neglected and abused. They came in all colors, spoke a variety of languages and belonged to different religions.
Doug talked with as many as he could. Sometimes he just listened as they poured out their troubles. Three hours later, he knew he had found a home.
Denver General trauma surgeon Bob Read describes Doug Overall as "one of the pillars of this place."
"Traditionally, we in the medical field have not done well with the issues surrounding death and dying--the emotional impact it has on people's lives," he says. "It's been interesting to watch someone who has dedicated his life to just that."
They met in the intensive-care unit, where Read was impressed with the chaplain's steadying influence. And not just on the patients and their families, but on the doctors, nurses and support personnel.
In the emergency room, the medical staff is focused on the technical aspects of the job. But when things get difficult, or if a bad outcome appears imminent, the call goes out for Doug Overall. "He walks in and everybody calms down--nurses, docs, the people running for supplies," Read says.
When he first arrived at the hospital, Doug formed the Critical Incident Stress Response team to help hospital personnel deal with the pressure-cooker life at an inner-city hospital. "Something like the bloody trauma involving a young person will affect everyone," Read says. "Sometimes we all forget that we're human until it builds up and you can't ignore it. Doug's program has been very well-received."
So well, in fact, that the city is thinking of expanding it to incorporate all of its agencies.
"He's not the sort of chaplain who sits there and reads someone the Bible," Read says. "He'll talk about God, if that's what's needed. He lets someone else be angry at God, and he'll sit there and listen, if that's what's needed."
Doug often serves as liaison between the doctors and the families. He accompanies the doctors who tell relatives that their loved one has reached "futile" care, discusses when it's appropriate to turn off the machines and brings up the topic of organ and tissue donations after death has been declared.
"He's phenomenal," says Read. "I think a lot of that comes from being at peace with himself; he appreciates death as a part of life and helps families adjust to the idea, come to grips with it and at last find peace themselves.
"You could replace the body of Doug with another chaplain at the drop of a hat. But you could never replace Doug. He is priceless."
Denver General sees 50,000 patients a year in the emergency room alone. More than 90 percent will survive. And for those who do not, chances are that Doug, or one of his students, is in attendance.
When there is a serious trauma case--whether from a gunshot wound or car accident--the call goes out. Often he is paged late at night and rises from his bed, no matter what the weather or time, to respond.
There have been too many tragedies to remember each and every one. Or what he said to the victims and their families--not that what Doug says usually matters so much. Time and experience have taught him when to come and when to go; when to coax people to express themselves and when to simply sit in silence; when to offer a cup of coffee and when to offer a shoulder to cry on.
Some cases are harder than others. He still cannot handle the smell of burn victims. But the worst are what he refers to as "fetal demises," babies who don't survive birth. A young couple arrives at the hospital hoping to deliver an infant, leaving a home with a little room with a newly painted crib, carrying dreams for the future in their hearts. Then their worst nightmare crushes their hopes.
Quietly, sometimes over the course of several hours as he feels for the right approach, Doug reaches out to the distraught parents. Would it help to hold the child? If they have chosen a name, would they like him to perform a baptism?
Dead infant, teenager or grandfather. It is up to Doug Overall to find a way to comfort their families. If they balk at his religious affiliation, he offers to "leave God in the hallway if I can come in."
So many deaths. A few years ago Doug began noticing the rise in violent crimes committed by the young, often against each other. Family after family appeared at the emergency room, looking for a son or daughter who was the latest victim of a drive-by.
Violence has become such a way of life that the U.S. Department of Justice recently held a seminar in Denver for clergy, alerting them to their increasing role in dealing with gangs, domestic violence and child abuse. The senseless violence of youths is one of the hardest things for Doug to understand.
It was early one morning in late February when he answered his page and learned that a police officer had been shot. It didn't look like he would survive.
The scene at the hospital was chaotic. Police officers huddled in their own groups. The mayor arrived, as did other members of city government. The press was everywhere. Someone told Doug that the suspect was a sixteen-year-old kid and that the victim's wife, Susan Leinen, worked at the hospital.
Doug found her in the conference room outside the intensive-care unit. She had already been in to see her husband; he was hovering near death as the surgeons worked frantically.
"I'm Doug Overall, the chaplain," he said to Susan. "I'm sorry your husband was shot. Is there anything I can do?"
Susan was in shock, quiet and tearful. "I can't believe this happened," she replied.
He got her some ice water and Kleenex and stayed with her while the doctors worked. A little while later, he accompanied her into the grieving room where a doctor pronounced her husband dead.
She asked the police officers in the room to leave so that she could be alone with her thoughts, but she indicated that Doug should stay. While she grieved, he sat silently until she was ready to leave.
Valerie Overall met her husband at church in 1989. They started out as friends. She was emerging from a difficult period, and he worked with her to examine her feelings. The friendship grew stronger. A year and half after they met, they married.
"He's taught me a lot about accepting things as they are," she says. "I was drawn to his strength and, for want of a better way to put it, his gentleness."
She is his rock when he comes home after a tough day. "He really tries to leave his work at the office," she says. "And he's pretty good at it. But some things affect him more than others, particularly the death of children. At those times, he doesn't say much, he's just quiet."
Like Doug, Valerie is an avid bike rider; together they exercise to relieve the stress. Now, though, he rides looking not for answers, but for peace of mind.
"I tell him that not many people can get up in the morning, go to work and then come home knowing that they made a difference in people's lives," Valerie says. "I remind him that this gift is nothing to be taken lightly. But sometimes I don't know how he does it and remains such a happy person."
The chapel at Denver General Hospital isn't much larger than the coatroom at the Washington, D.C., chapel he left behind. Four rows of pews, a small organ and stained glass enclosed in dark wood paneling. The Bible at the pulpit is opened to Psalm 23. Yea, though I walk through the valley of death, I fear no evil; for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me...
Doug sits in his minuscule office behind the chapel. On one wall is a painting of Jesus crowned with thorns; on the wall opposite is a photograph of a runner in a desert setting. Under the word "Determination," the caption reads, "The Race Is Not Always to the Swift But to Those Who Keep Running."
Some days, it is all he can do to walk. Soon he will have some help in the form of a new, part-time chaplain. In the meantime, though, he considers himself fortunate to be wearing several different hats: comforter to those in need; teacher to students; director of the hospital's Critical Incident Stress team and occasional critic who is not afraid to point out problems at the hospital.
He tries to stay in touch with those who may still need him. Last week he called Reidar to see if he wanted to take in a ballgame--sometimes there is nothing like a mouthful of hotdog, left-fielder Dante Bichette coming up to the plate with the bases loaded and a seat next to a friend.
Others he simply lets know that he's available. Hounded by the press, Susan Leinen has gone into seclusion to await the birth of her baby. Doug talks to her every few weeks. Sixteen-year-old Raymond Gone is awaiting trial for her husband's murder.
These have been particularly trying times. One day a man was shot at an automatic teller machine by teenagers who wanted his car; a day later, a man stabbed his seven-year-old daughter in a K-mart. The next week there were three fetal demises, at least one of them because of suspected abuse by the parents.
It takes a toll on him, and his bicycle is seeing a lot of miles these days. He doesn't ride fast, but he rides far as he feels the grief and pain fall to the road behind him.
He wouldn't be anywhere else. His desk drawer at DGH is crammed with addresses, postcards and business cards from people whose lives he has touched. People write or drop by his office just to let him know that they are doing okay.
Many he has seen only once or twice before--but it was in the most intense moments of their lives, and he became almost family. "Someone once coined the phrase that pastoral care is a `meeting of intimate strangers,'" he says.
He has learned much from people like Susan Leinen, Nita and Reidar Hansen, other patients and his instructors. And today he shares Daniel's gift of tears without shame or embarrassment.
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The image of a loving, caring God that he had as a child has returned now that he is a man, even if the rules are not so simple. He has looked at his faith and found that its basic truths can withstand scrutiny, can weather any trauma. Life. Death. Joy. Grief. They are all part of the grand scheme; recognizing and dealing with them is what makes us human.
"I am often amazed at how resilient people are to get through loss," Doug says, "and at our ability to recover and find a reason to go on living.
"Bad things happen to good people. Sometimes all you can do is climb down into the pit with them and stay there until they are ready to climb out."
end of part 2