Doctor of the soul tends his worried flock with love

March 26, 1994|By Melody Simmons | Melody Simmons,Sun Staff Writer

In a small, bare office on the ground floor of the University of Maryland Medical Center, the Rev. Darneal Johnson offers a Kleenex, a little wisdom and healing advice.

Here patients and family members can escape the fast pace of the huge hospital on Greene Street, seeking the answer to one of life's constant questions: Why me?

"With all the confusion going around in the world, these people need some stable person to guide them," the Baptist minister said. "That is the unique thing about this job -- I'm in a position to pull them out and get them to think."

As one of three local ministers who serve the UM Medical Center -- formerly University Hospital -- Mr. Johnson has seen a patchwork of life's joy and pain in his 23-year career as doctor of the soul.

He has performed death-bed marriages, offered encouragement to cancer victims and congratulated new mothers. He also has helped depressed patients and family members who often show up at his door seeking guidance.

Such clergy members, researchers say, offer a sense of hope and trust for the sick -- in many cases, speeding recovery time and saving health care costs.

For example, a 1993 study of 300 heart surgery patients found that those who had contact with a clergy member were released from the hospital three days earlier than those who had no contact. Dr. Elisabeth McSherry, a West Roxbury (Mass.) Veterans Administration Medical Center researcher who conducted the study, said most hospital chaplains can quickly establish trust and "health optimism" with patients.

At the West Baltimore hospital, which treats many low-income inner city residents, Mr. Johnson is constantly reaching out with love and concern, while trying to inspire patients to turn their lives around and conquer addictions to drugs and alcohol.

Other problems also arise. He said he has spent hours counseling unwed mothers -- many of them teen-agers -- who are depressed and products of weak family structures. "People are lacking love," Mr. Johnson, 50, said. "A lot of people are physically sick and their condition is built on their mental condition.

"Quite often, I am the first person in their lives who has really talked and listened to them, and they tell me that. I feel sorry for them. I don't know how they have made it that far along in life."

Working part time at the UM Medial Center and at Montebello Rehabilitation Hospital, Mr. Johnson is also the preacher at Victory Baptist Church in West Baltimore. A minister for 30 years, followed his father and grandfather into the pulpit and receives a salary of $26,000 at UM Medical Center. "I was called to do this -- it's not my choice," he said. "I always wanted to be a lawyer. I like debates."

Stephen Joseph, a UM Medical Center official who oversees the department of pastoral care, said Mr. Johnson and his coworkers counsel about 1,500 patients a month. That's more than half of the hospital's 24,000 yearly admissions.

"The department is the calming influence at the hospital," Mr. Joseph said. "They are a reassuring force throughout the hospital when patients or their loved ones are having days of anxiety."

He said the department also serves a vital role in the institution's holistic vision. "Anytime someone has a belief in something, it helps them stay focused. They don't give up."

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