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The background image is A closeup image shows the hands of a chaplain and a patient clasped together.

Being there

When they walk into a hospital room, some of them rest a hand over their heart to cover their ID badge.

That’s for the panic. Everyone has seen the same movie, after all. When someone with the word “chaplain” in their title arrives, it’s the end. A chaplain is the last person you want to see.

This story covers 24 hours months before COVID-19 turned their world upside down. For months chaplains at Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center stayed out of rooms, offering their care virtually. Now, as the health system’s operations have evolved, they’re back.

At hospitals like the Milton S. Hershey Medical Center, members of Pastoral Services do more than offer prayers for the dying. Their work is for the living. While they are often the keepers of the Medical Center’s grief, they are also comforters, messengers and finders of families. They are the heart and soul.

At the Hershey Medical Center, doctors and nurses set the bones, treat the wounds and fight the illnesses.

Chaplains fill the gaps.

About this project

Months before the pandemic, a team of Penn State Health editors, writers, photographers and videographers spent 24 hours with members of the Pastoral Services team of Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center. This project captures their experiences.

Team members:
  • Videographer/photographer Jason Plotkin
  • Freelance photographer John Whitehead
  • Freelance writers Buffy Andrews and Jennifer Vogelsong
  • Editor/content specialist Bill Landauer
  • Online designers Joan Concilio and Michelle Blandy

The background image is A woman in professional dress hugs a man who is sitting in a chair in a hospital room. Both of their eyes are closed.

The day shift: 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.

  • 8:01 a.m.
  • 8:35 a.m.
  • 9:15 a.m.
  • 9:57 a.m.
  • 10:28 a.m.
  • 11:04 a.m.
  • 11:31 a.m.
  • 12:25 p.m.
  • 1:42 p.m.
  • 2 p.m.
  • 2:16 p.m.
  • 2:20 p.m.
  • 3:01 p.m.
  • 3:10 p.m.
  • 3:18 p.m.
  • 3:27 p.m.

“What people will tell you when you’re not wearing a white coat” 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Sometime this morning, she will walk through the door, and Charles Scott Nelson III will say goodbye.

The woman who comes to visit has become important. Months ago, not long after he’d flown thousands of miles from his home in Valencia, Calif., to the East Coast on business, a heart attack nearly killed him.

Doctors told him he needs a heart transplant to survive. Since then, Nelson has been stranded. Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center has been his residence for months now. Family is nowhere near. Most days, his only contact with the outside world are the treetops and grass he can see outside the hospital windows.

Try not giving into depression when death seems near and your main social interaction is with people who, for all their kindness, poke you and jab you and stick you with needles.

On most days, however, one visitor does more than help repair his broken body. She talks with him every day about his spirits ― both the Biblical kind and the emotional kind she tries to help him raise.

It’s Staff Chaplain Darlene Miller Cooley, who has become a surrogate family of sorts for Nelson these many months. She’s listens, cares and never judges.

But now Nelson has just received word that he’s about to head home to a hospital in California for the rest of his treatment. Before he can go back to his West Coast family, he must say goodbye to the East Coast friend who has come to mean so much.

Nelson is one of Cooley’s many stops on this day. She and her colleagues help guide dozens of patients like Nelson through sickness, death, marriage and new life.

Read more from day shift

Chaplain Darlene Miller Cooley hugs Charles Scott Nelson III of Long Branch, N.J. during a morning visit.

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total patient encounters
January - December 2020

The background image is A man wearing a badge identifying him as a chaplain leans against a wall, looking pensive.

The night shift: 7 p.m. to 8 a.m.

  • 7:21 p.m.
  • 7:49 p.m.
  • 8:15 p.m.
  • 8:45 p.m.
  • 9:25 p.m.
  • 10 p.m.
  • 10:53 p.m.
  • 11:55 p.m.
  • 12:15 a.m.
  • 12:17 a.m.
  • 12:35 a.m.
  • 12:40 a.m.
  • 12:45 a.m.
  • 1 a.m.
  • 1:25 a.m.
  • 1:35 a.m.
  • 1:55 a.m.
  • 2:25 a.m.
  • 3:25 a.m.
  • 4 a.m.
  • 6 a.m.
  • 7:45 a.m.
  • 7:55 a.m.

“A walk with people in the dark places”

In the darkness, the pager beeps.

Chaplain Intern Troy Spencer still hasn’t fallen asleep. 3:25 a.m., his phone says.

This time, it’s Neuroscience Critical Care.

“Potential End of Life,” is the call.

When he arrives, an unconscious man in a hospital bed is gasping fruitlessly for air. A woman stands next to the bed, weeping.

As he has more than a dozen times tonight, Spencer introduces himself and asks, “How can I be with you right now?”

“I don’t know,” the woman says.

“It’s OK to not know,” Spencer says.

He asks if she’d like to pray. Yes, she says. How can he help her pray? Spencer asks.

Again, the woman doesn’t know.

It is the last of a series of short but fathomless walks Spencer will take on this night with people who hoped they’d never have to meet him. For 12 hours, the young chaplain has worked mostly in trauma bays helping doctors connect with patients, helping keep patients informed and, as much as possible, at peace. He has seen motorcycle accidents, stabbings, heart attacks, bleeding children – and now a final goodbye.

And when it’s over, Spencer’s shift won’t be.

Read more from night shift

Troy Spencer, a chaplain intern at Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center, waits for updates about a patient outside of one of the rooms of the Surgical and Anesthesia Intensive Care Unit during a recent overnight shift.

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trauma encounters
January - December 2020

In memoriam

Pastoral Services regularly invites back family and friends to remember the lives of loved ones lost in a ceremony in the hospital’s chapel. The attendees say the event is cathartic. “This is a place where people can heal in their grief journey,” says David Simmons, director of pastoral care services.