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Angels of Mersey

2012 March 26
by Paul Vallely

Caroline Ferguson’s heart had stopped. Nothing was going right. First the doctors had detected that the foetal heartbeat had ceased within the pregnant woman’s womb.  Now, with the Caesarian half complete and the dead baby removed and discarded in a dish, the mother’s heart had stopped. The medics sprang into emergency action.

After several scary moments the doctors restarted her heart and began tidying up. One doctor put a stethoscope to the baby’s chest to confirm he was dead.  To his amazement he heard the faintest heartbeat. The child was rushed with a police escort to Alder Hey children’s hospital down the road. Caroline’s husband, Mike, was presented with a terrible dilemma. Should he stay with his unconscious wife or reborn child?

He hesitated and rushed to Alder Hey. There the staff asked if wanted the baby given an emergency baptism.  Had they chosen a name?  They had; they had decided their son would be called Charles. But her husband, in his panic, had forgotten the name. “Call him Mark,” he told the chaplain.

Yet when Caroline came round she was not surprised. While she was unconscious she had felt herself moving slowly down a long white corridor. At the end was a bright sunlight and a face. Then she heard a voice say: “Go back. Mark needs you. Go back.”

She was so disconcerted that she did not tell anyone. “I never told a soul. I kept it to myself. I never even told my husband,” she now says. “In fact I’ve never discussed this with anyone before.”

But then, some 30 years later, her husband died quite suddenly. Four months after that her mother died too. Caroline was, by coincidence, a senior manager at Alder Hey. “One of my jobs was managing the chaplains,” she says, “I turned to them…” Two years later she decided to become a Roman Catholic. “I don’t know why. I heard no voices, saw no angels, just the voices of the people in the chaplaincy.” Eight years after that she resigned her management job and joined the team as a Catholic chaplain.

Listening quietly to this story is the Revd Dave Williams. As the hospital’s lead chaplain he is used to hearing extraordinary stories.  He and Caroline both feature prominently in Angels of Mersey the new BBC2 series about chaplains of all faiths working in hospitals, universities, industry, the fire service and on the streets of the city of Liverpool.

Dave used to be a local Anglican vicar before becoming a fulltime chaplain. “I slipped up there,” he laughs, drily, “steering Caroline towards becoming a Catholic. But her husband had been a lapsed Catholic and mourning is a hugely complex time. It seemed the right thing.”

Doing the right thing is often not the obvious thing when you are dealing with people in crisis. It also highlight part of the difference between being a vicar – where the faithful come to you – and a chaplain, where you go out and encounter a far wider range of people than would ever darken the aisles of their local church. The job is not about converting so much as conversing.

That’s why, on his walkabouts on the wards, Dave always wears his dog collar sticking out of his shirt unfastened. “I reckon if I look like a scruffy sod I’m not so intimidating,” he says. Caroline’s badge does not say Chaplain but Spiritual Care Team, for the same reason.

It is a tough calling. One new chaplain, after seeing his first very seriously ill child, once said to Dave: “I felt totally inadequate in there”. Dave replied: “That’s how you should feel. This is not a ministry of doing; it’s a ministry of being. Our job is just to be with people in their darkest times, to say to them ‘I don’t know why this has happened to you’ but you are not on your own.” The team do not seek out members of their own denominations, or even faiths. “We are all here for everyone,” says Caroline. There is a Muslim corner of the chapel, where the iconography is all portable and therefore removable.

There are no atheists in intensive care, an old hospital quip has it. It is not, of course, true. But families in hospital find themselves in desperate situations where their spiritual needs come to the fore, possibly for the first time in their lives. “There are very few parents who aren’t clinging onto something when their child is ill,” says Dave, “and more so when a child has died”.

The board in the chapel to which relatives can pin impromptu prayers reveals that. These are not the prayers of churchgoers but desperate pleas: ‘Please let the diagnosis be a good one’. ‘Please let Conor have a better day today’ ‘We miss you more each day, little man’.  The prayer board is the most important thing in the chapel, Dave says simply.

What do chaplains say when a child dies? When Dave first arrived he felt a cool welcome from the nurses on the intensive care unit. “Then I found that a previous chaplain used to go in there and say that everything was part of God’s plan. If you said that to me when my child had died I’d lamp you,” he says. “I don’t believe in that kind of God.”

So what does he say? “I always say; ‘What a beautiful child’, because they always are. And I say: ‘I have no explanation of why this has happened. I just believe that God is weeping with you’.”

How do parents react to words like that? “Look, it’s never right when a little child dies,” Dave says. “People are hurting and they are angry. Occasionally you get aggression in the bereavement suite, though it is usually from relatives not parents. But God is big enough to be shouted at. Jesus shouted at God from the cross when he thought he had been abandoned. Jesus said just before his own death: ‘in this world you will have troubles, but do not be afraid for God is with you’. He won’t get you round the problems but he will get you through them.”

There is a fierce intensity to this place. One couple approached him after their baby died. “Will you do the funeral, Dave, because you really knew her,” they asked. The child was six days old. “She was a lovely little girl with a lovely smile,” Dave recalls.

“At the funeral her Grandad said: ‘Things don’t happen for a reason, they just happen; it’s how we cope with them that matters’. That was so wise from a man who was broken-hearted,” the chaplain concludes. “But what you also have to hang on to is that most kids in this hospital don’t die; they get better.”

Prayers from the Prayer Board in the chapel at Alder Hey children’s hospital, March 2012

  • Please look after Jack in his new ward. Keep him safe
  • Thank you for watching over him
  • Please pray for all the children in Alder Hay
  • Stay close to Grandad Bill
  • Help my Mum through the darkest days
  • Please pray for all the children in the world
  • Keep fighting and proving the doctors wrong, little girl

from The Radio Times

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