Meeting Patients’ and Families’ Spiritual Needs
Chaplaincy has been part of Shepherd Center’s interdisciplinary approach to care since the hospital’s inception.
On June 1, Dave Wethington walked into Shepherd Center for the first time as an employee, having been recently named the newest chaplain in the Larry L. Prince Chaplaincy Program – but he is no stranger to Shepherd Center.
Wethington was once a patient in Shepherd Center’s Brain Injury Rehabilitation Program, and he credits Shepherd Center’s chaplaincy program for both helping to restore his hope after sustaining a brain injury and inspiring him to pursue chaplaincy after his rehabilitation.
Originally from Cincinnati, Ohio, Wethington attended college at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, majoring in chemical engineering. After receiving his degree, he worked as an engineer in his hometown and eventually moved back to Atlanta with his wife in 2007.
In 2012, Wethington received some difficult news. Doctors found a near baseball-sized tumor in his brain, which he had to have surgically removed. While the tumor was benign, surgeons were unable to remove all of it. Then, during surgery, he sustained an acquired brain injury. Suddenly, he was unable to do many things for himself – including walking and talking. He also had hearing, vision and cognitive impairments. Wethington and his wife were told they needed to go to Shepherd Center for his rehabilitation.
Wethington found himself in an unexpected – and unfamiliar – situation. He was losing hope. Then, he met with former Shepherd Center chaplain, Alan Roof.
“Connecting with the chaplain helped me reframe my perspective,” Wethington says. “It allowed me to find hope and purpose in a devastating situation. With Alan’s help, I was able to see my brain injury as a turning point in my life. It gave me the opportunity to hit pause and make a change.”
Aside from the permanent hearing loss in one ear and double vision, Wethington made a full recovery. He returned to his job as a chemical engineer, but shortly after his daughter, Avery, was born in 2013, he felt a calling. Wethington enrolled in the Dallas Theological Seminary, Houston Campus, and the family moved to Texas. While in school, he volunteered at a hospital and knew almost immediately that was the kind of work he wanted to do.
“I realized how fulfilled I felt,” he says. “My experience allowed me to connect with the patients and have empathy for them. I saw it as a ‘God opportunity.’”
Wethington completed his residency in the Texas Medical Center and was part of the Houston Methodist Hospital system for five years. Through the years, he had also kept in touch with Alan Roof, the chaplain who had supported and motivated him during his stay at Shepherd Center. One day, Wethington received an email from Roof announcing his retirement from Shepherd Center, and Wethington considered applying for the open position.
“It had always been in the back of my mind – what it would be like to work at Shepherd Center,” he says. “But I didn’t think it would ever happen.”
It did happen. Wethington joined Ben Rose, Shepherd Center’s other chaplain, in June 2020, and together they will continue to minister to the spiritual needs of the patients, their families, and staff of all faiths. This can take many forms: simply praying with them, providing spiritual counseling, working as part of the care team and/or connecting with them during regular Sunday services in the chapel. When needed, they also perform marriages, baptisms and funerals.
“We do our best to see every inpatient at least once,” says Rose, who has been at Shepherd Center for 10 years. “They are processing what has happened to them and coming to terms with their new normal. Most of them are grieving a loss. We can help them through that.”
The chaplaincy program was established right after the hospital was founded in 1975.
“From the very beginning, we thought it was important for patients and families to have that faith support,” says Shepherd Center Co-Founder Alana Shepherd. “Having hospital chaplains is a big part of healing – and hope – at Shepherd Center.”
Rose says there are many rewarding parts to his job, such as seeing someone sing in the chapel when he or she thought they would never sing again, or when they share a part of their spiritual journey with him. He also enjoys it when patients come back to visit, and he can see how far they’ve come.
“You see so much negativity in the world right now,” Rose says. “Working at Shepherd reminds you that people are still resilient and strong and can overcome major obstacles.”
And Wethington is happy to be a part of all of that.
“I love being a chaplain and helping people find hope in a seemingly hopeless situation,” he says. “I am glad to be working in a hospital environment that feels like a family, because that’s what it felt like when I was a patient there. But most importantly, I’m hoping to be able to do for someone else what a chaplain once did for me. I bring that empathy and understanding from my own experience to every patient I see.”
Written by Sara Baxter
Shepherd Center, located in Atlanta, Georgia, is a private, not-for-profit hospital specializing in medical treatment, research and rehabilitation for people with spinal cord injury, brain injury, multiple sclerosis, spine and chronic pain, and other neuromuscular conditions. Founded in 1975, Shepherd Center is ranked by U.S. News & World Report among the top 10 rehabilitation hospitals in the nation. In its more than four decades, Shepherd Center has grown from a six-bed rehabilitation unit to a world-renowned, 152-bed hospital that treats more than 935 inpatients, 541 day program patients and more than 7,300 outpatients each year.