SALINE, Mich. – As he walks toward the entrance of the oncology clinic at St. Joseph Mercy Hospital, chaplain David McNeil wonders what the new day will bring. Scanning the room, he sees many familiar faces. Some of these men and women are gaining ground in their battles with cancer, and one or two may be nearing the end of their journeys. He also sees a new patient, her face clearly registering the shock of a recent diagnosis.
As chaplain to this community within St. Joseph Mercy Hospital, McNeil knows that each of these patients has stories to tell – not only about their cancer diagnosis and treatment, but also the stories of their lives, hopes and dreams.
So each day, he listens. Sometimes he offers a cup of tea, a handshake, a tissue or a hug. Here and there, he admires a knitting project or a family photo. Occasionally, he will bow his head and pray with a patient or family member. But every day, he takes the time to listen so no one will feel alone on his or her journey.
As those who have had cancer or who have battled alongside a loved one know, this life-threatening disease comes with a multitude of questions, emotions and dilemmas. Am I going to die? Who will take care of my family? Will the pain ever stop? Why would God do this to me? are just a few. Patients and families are searching for answers, comfort, strength and hope.
Most hospitals provide intentional, professional spiritual care only to inpatients. But more and more, doctors and nurses are recognizing the importance of bringing this support to cancer patients in the outpatient setting. That’s why St. Joe’s invited Saline resident David McNeil to join its full-time staff, making him one of just a few outpatient oncology chaplains in the nation. He also spends a day or two each week at the health system’s clinic in Brighton.
Prior to beginning this position nearly two years ago, McNeil was Director of Christian Education at Saline’s Christ Our King Lutheran Church, but he had long been interested in becoming a chaplain. He completed 300 hours of instruction and 900 hours of fieldwork at Sinai-Grace Hospital in Detroit and at St. Joseph Mercy Ann Arbor.
While completing his training at St. Joe’s, he was exploring the labyrinth of treatment areas and was struck by the need and opportunity that he saw in the outpatient chemotherapy clinic. He began volunteering there two mornings per week, visiting with patients, providing spiritual support and fostering a sense of community among the patients and their family members.
McNeil’s care for cancer patients may begin in the chemotherapy clinic, but it often extends to his visiting them when they are hospitalized, and even to their homes or to hospice settings. His relationships with patients and families are so strong that the chaplain often presides at funerals, a duty that he says is also a great honor.
But it is not just the patients who appreciate him. McNeil finds himself spending a significant amount of time with staff. He assists caregivers by providing information on religious traditions and practices observed by patients. He also supports his colleagues through periods of discouragement, grief and on-the-job stress and, sometimes, through personal and family crises.
Recently, the nurses and other staff members circulated a card on which they wrote heartfelt notes of appreciation. A sentiment from one nurse is exemplary of the thoughts shared by others: “You will never know how much you mean to not only the patients but the nurses as well. When you are here the atmosphere is positive and calm. We love you.”
McNeil’s tenure at St. Joe’s was made possible by initial grants from Christ Our King Lutheran Church and the Michigan District Lutheran Church. He has also received support from the members of St. Francis of Assisi, a Roman Catholic parish, as well as other religious organizations and individual donors.
Perhaps this growing base of support reflects the number of people whose lives have been touched by cancer. At some point in their lives, more than one in three Americans will have the disease. That’s why this fall, members of the Christ Our King Men’s Group will hold a spaghetti dinner to raise funds for the chaplaincy. It will take place at the church on Sunday, Oct. 18 from 12:30 until 5 p.m. and everyone is welcome.
For now, as Dave McNeil enters the oncology clinic, he is thinking about how blessed he is to be a part of this community of caring. He says he feels honored to journey with these patients, to share their hopes and dreams as well as their fears and anger, and to witness the dedication and kindness of the doctors and nurses.
He says a prayer of thanks and turns to see a patient waving to him with a big smile on his face. McNeil waves back, crosses the room to greet him, and his day in the oncology clinic has begun.
Spaghetti Dinner to Benefit the Oncology Chaplaincy
Sunday, October 18
12:30 – 5 p.m.
Christ Our King Lutheran Church
3255 Waterworks Road, Saline