Hospital chaplain gives comfort out of own pain Patients, staff praise his work

November 07, 1993|By Sherry Joe | Sherry Joe,Staff Writer

The 6-year-old boy was already dead, but the Rev. Arthur R. Lillicropp 3rd, chaplain at Howard County General Hospital, spoke to him anyway.

"I told him that he was going to be in a place where there is no more pain," recalls the Episcopal priest, known as Father Art. "I told him he would meet my daughter, that he would meet young men and women. I told him that even though his life was wracked with agony, he would have no more pain, for eternity."

It was Father Art's way of bidding a dignified farewell to Christopher Flye, of Nashville, Tenn., who died in August while in the care of a Wilde Lake man, who now faces murder and child abuse charges.

As the pastoral care director at Howard County General Hospital, the 46-year-old priest deals with the spiritual and emotional struggles of patients at the 214-bed institution, the county's only hospital.

On a given day, his work may range from finding clothes for a homeless man to comforting a woman whose best friend's son has just died.

During his seven years at the hospital, Father Art also has established a ceremony to honor tissue and organ donors and recipients and created support groups for cancer and AIDS patients and their family members.

"I love it," he says of his demanding job. "It's just the meat and bones of ministry."

It's a ministry born, in some ways, of his own struggles and tragedies, including an abusive childhood, a bout of blindness -- that required corneal transplants, and the death of his only child, who was born with spina bifida.

Only now is he coming to terms with grief over his difficult past.

"It's called healing," Father Art said. "Healing is not something that happens overnight. Healing has come about in my 40s. It takes a lifetime."

That healing takes place during his 50-hour workweeks, spent counseling and visiting patients, staff members and their families. Colleagues say he knows exactly what to do in moments of emotional turmoil.

'Very, very helpful'

"Art is very, very helpful," says Jon Minford, an oncologist at the hospital, who has known Father Art for about five years. "Not many people can handle those emotional situations. He can be sympathetic, empathetic and forceful. Some of us would see those as no-win situations, but he thrives."

Such was the case in August, when emergency room staff members were unable to revive Christopher.

"The staff was a mess," says Patryce Toye, emergency room physician. "The emergency room was in shreds."

Father Art, who cradled the boy's body at the hospital, later sent the staff flowers and a note reading, "I am so proud to work with you who love so deeply. In memory of little Christopher. Love, Father Art."

The gift helped ease the pain of staff members.

"He just kind of knows what you need," Dr. Toye said.

In some instances, Father Art has been able to draw on his own traumatic experiences to craft practical ways of dealing with the problems of others.

As a child, for instance, Father Art was sexually and physically abused by his father, who broke the boy's leg with a baseball bat when he was 10 years old.

Next year, Father Art plans to start a group outside the hospital for men who are batterers, a 12-step program designed "to help men find healing ways to deal with their anger and softness."

Fourteen years ago, his 4-month-old daughter, Phoebe Grace, who was born with spina bifida and had other health problems, died. Tormented by feelings of helplessness, he vowed to protect other parents from such emotions, especially fathers.

"I know how abandoned I felt when my daughter died," he says. "Men have had no time to bond with the baby. It's a different kind of loss, a sense of abandonment and despair that they can't fix something. They get angry."

Memorial garden

As a way of helping others deal with that anger, he writes prayers for children stillborn at the hospital and recruits volunteers from Vantage House, a Columbia retirement community, to crochet bootees and blankets for them.

He also has persuaded officials at Columbia Memorial Park, near the intersection of Route 108 and Trotter Road, to create a garden for parents to mourn their youngsters.

"They'll have a sacred place that they can return to," he says, referring to the piece of land the size of a family plot where he plans to hold a memorial service every spring for parents.

On call at the hospital, Father Art might see up to 40 patients in one day, or as few as four, offering everything from material support to a sympathetic ear.

One day, for instance, the chaplain --ed off to The Mall in Columbia to buy underwear, sneakers and socks for a homeless man who had been seen walking near the hospital and who said he was on his way to New York.

On another occasion, he comforted a woman whose best friend's son has just died.

"With God's love, things get better," he told the woman, adding that she could page him at any time. "I'm on beeper 31 and I'll spend as much time as I can and we'll walk through it together."

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