A Chaplain’s Story

He steps off the elevator outside the Intensive Care Unit. The date is December 23, 2010, just two days before Christmas. He’s going into a situation he knows will be tough. As with most calls, he knows why he’s going but not exactly what he’ll walk into. He’s not a security officer. He’s not a physician. He’s the senior staff chaplain at Savannah’s Memorial University Medical Center.

His name is Douglas Westfall, known throughout the hospital simply as Pastor Doug. Westfall is a fit, energetic, middle-aged man with an intense and unconditional love for people. He spent 15 years in parish ministry before transitioning to a pastoral role that is far more demanding and far less predictable. Earlier today, the Moore family of Philadelphia was traveling to Florida on I-95 to spend the holiday with loved ones. They make the trip every year. However, this time, near Savannah, the trip came to an abrupt and tragic end.

Rob Moore Sr. had been driving with his 7-year-old son, R.J., in the front seat. He was growing weary and it was time to switch drivers. So, his wife, Cassandra, and their 13-year-old daughter, Autumn, moved to the front seat. Cassandra took the wheel while Rob and R.J., now in the back seat, fastened themselves in. But Cassandra and Autumn did not buckle up. Soon, there was an accident—a horrible accident. All four were rushed to the Emergency Room at Memorial University Medical Center. Rob and R.J. emerged with only minor injuries. Cassandra, not quite so fortunate, suffered broken bones in her back, though miraculously, no spinal cord damage. She was admitted to the ICU. Autumn arrived at the ER in very grave condition. Despite the assiduous, heroic efforts of the trauma team, they were not able to save her life. Westfall makes his way to the ICU to join the doctor who is about to deliver the devastating news. The task of disseminating medical information, including a death, falls squarely on the doctor. The family is about to be informed of their unbearable loss.

Westfall’s role in this sad situation is manifold. It begins with accompanying the doctor as he tells the Moore family that Autumn, their beautiful, vibrant and extremely bright child, has just died. Upon hearing the doctor’s carefully worded pronouncement, the room bursts into a tempest of emotion. Rob is utterly devastated, and R.J. is distressed and incredulous. Cassandra is in complete, almost violent, denial. Sitting up in her hospital bed, she grabs the doctor’s lab coat by the lapels and pulls his face to hers. “My daughter is NOT dead!” she screams. “My daughter is a fighter! She never gives up! Now go back in there and help her, and don’t you give up!” This continues for about an hour. Unable to help the grieving mother accept the cruel reality, the doctor again expresses his deepest sympathies and quietly leaves.

Photography by Jabberpics