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'Spiritual surgeon' offers comfort

A self-described rabbinic pastor ministers to those of all faiths, or even none, during other times of need at Bayfront Medical Center.


© St. Petersburg Times, published September 15, 2001

A self-described rabbinic pastor ministers to those of all faiths, or even none, during other times of need at Bayfront Medical Center.

ST. PETERSBURG -- As bewildered co-workers sought answers and solace in the face of the worst assault to hit American soil, Rabbi Kate Fagan was there to listen and to pray.

It's in her job description.

As a chaplain at Bayfront Medical Center, Fagan is on hand for patients and their families in good times and especially in bad times.

And with the approach of the High Holy Days, the most solemn period of the Jewish year, Fagan will make it possible for hospitalized patients who want to observe this important 10-day period to do exactly that.

Fagan, 57, describes herself as a rabbinic pastor. She is specially trained as a chaplain and brings to her job 35 years of experience in several other careers.

"I used to be in the business world," said Fagan, who owned her own companies for 12 years and was a computer consultant and manufacturers' representative.

She became increasingly dissatisfied with her life and felt a pull toward her current vocation.

"It's really a calling for me. I had been praying for quite a while to find what it was I was supposed to be doing," the mother of two adult sons and two granddaughters said.

"I was looking for something that had more redeeming value."

She said her training for the chaplaincy was different from that of congregational rabbis.

"I think the biggest thing that is emphasized is to be really able to listen," she said.

Her training combined long-distance study and visits to Elat Chayyim in New York and Rabbi Marcia Prager, dean of the rabbinic pastor program with the Aleph Association of Rabbis for Jewish Renewal in Philadelphia.

"I think that most congregational rabbis have a little more training in things like biblical Hebrew and the Halakhah (Jewish law). My ordination allows me to do all the life cycle events, and my training as a chaplain allows me to be with people at the times of their lives that have the potential to be transforming," said Fagan, a member of Temple Beth-El at 400 Pasadena Ave. S.

Ordained July 22, she previously worked at Bayfront Medical Center as a part-time chaplain and had an intensive year of training at Tampa General Hospital. She returned to Bayfront as a full-time chaplain about 18 months ago and is the hospital's first Jewish chaplain and the only one in Pinellas County.

At Bayfront, Fagan's job is to minister to people of all religions and of no faith.

"The majority of the people I see are not Jewish, and I am here for all the patients and their relatives," she said.

Bayfront has one of the busiest trauma centers in the Tampa Bay area.

"Through our emergency room, we see about 53,000 patients a year. More than 3,000 of them are trauma patients," said Cassandra Morrell, Bayfront's news bureau chief.

"Some of them come by BayFlight. Some of them come by ground," she said and added that these patients come from 15 counties.

Bayfront's three full-time chaplains and a pool of about a dozen part-timers meet incoming critically injured patients and help locate their next of kin if necessary.

"We attempt to comfort the patient, and we meet the families when they arrive at the hospital," Fagan said.

"We are also trained in ways to break the news to the families and try to make it as gentle as we can. Many times, these people left home an hour ago and I'm calling to tell them that their loved one has been in a serious accident."

Fagan said she will make special provisions for Jewish patients who want to observe the upcoming High Holy Days. The 10-day period of prayer, reflection, charity and atonement begins Monday at sundown with Rosh Hashana, the Jewish new year. Patients who are not on a special diet will be given apples and honey, symbols of hope for a sweet new year, electric candles, challah (braided bread) and grape juice so that they can say the traditional holiday prayers. Fagan will invite Michael Shapiro, vice president of Temple Beth-El's board of trustees, to sound the shofar, or ram's horn, Tuesday afternoon for patients who are well enough to appreciate the ancient tradition.

A few hours before the start of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, which begins at sundown on Sept. 26, Fagan will repeat the same ritual.

Her job involves ministering to colleagues, as well.

"We are here to take care of our patients; and sometimes we need care, as well," she said of the hospital staff.

The past few days since the catastrophe in New York, Washington, D.C., and outside Pittsburgh have been difficult for everyone, she said. Services were organized in Bayfront's chapel to pray for peace, forgiveness and the victims of the terrorist assault.

It's at times like these that she feels most fulfilled, Fagan said. It is the reason she wanted to become a chaplain.

"I think it is the opportunity to be there for people who are in a time of need. . . . At those crisis times in our lives, that is when we think the most about God and about what life means," she said.

"A chance to be with people and to hear about their sadness, their pain, their joy, their enlightenment is a great blessing."

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