By Deanna Belanndi
The TV drama "ER" fictionalizes life at Cook County Hospital, a sprawling inner-city facility that cares for Chicago's poor.
But for Fr. John Pennington, SJ, a hospital chaplain there, life at Cook County isn't a make-believe script. It's reality.
"A roller coaster" is how Pennington characterizes his daily range of emotions.
Spend a day with him and you get a glimpse into what life is like for him and the three other Jesuit chaplains at Cook County.
On this day, Pennington's work begins with a heart-wrenching task. A chaplain from a hospital in downstate Peoria has called to ask him to find the family of a two-year-old boy who was badly burned and flown to Cook County for treatment.
Pennington locates the boy's family outside the hospital's burn unit and leads them in prayer.
"We pray that you will give him relief from pain," Pennington says. "Please Lord, hear all these prayers."
The boy later died.
When he's working at Cook County, Pennington isn't particular about where, or when, he prays with family members or patients.
"Where it happens, you pray," he says.
Pennington, 64 this March, came to Cook County almost seven years ago after working at a parish in Lagos, Nigeria.
The Jesuits have ministered at Cook County since the turn of this century, when the Archdiocese of Chicago requested the Society's participation, according to Fr. Robert Finn. He and Frs. William Madden and James Chambers are Jesuit priests who work part time at Cook County.
"This is a work for and with the poor," says Finn, who specializes in working with children.
Finn says being at Cook County is "a chance to see our Lord at work among his people."
"I seem to get more out of it than I give," he adds.
Pennington was a hospital chaplain before, working for four years as the night chaplain at Loyola Medical Center in suburban Chicago.
Although he handles tough cases, Pennington says life at Cook County is nothing like "ER." On the TV show, says Pennington, viewers see "ten days' worth of trauma in an hour."
It was the death of Pennington's mother that inspires his work as a chaplain. He was living in Ohio seventeen years ago and was unable to get to his mother's bedside when she became gravely ill at a home for the elderly outside Chicago. He didn't want her to be alone so he called a former nurse's aide, a friend of his mother's, and asked her to comfort his mother until he got there.
He didn't reach his mother before she died, but the family friend was with her.
Pennington recalls the friend telling him: "What a thrill it was to know she was looking at me and the next moment she was looking at God."
It's that experience Pennington draws on when he's ministering to patients and staff at Cook County.
"At their most vulnerable moment, you can bring some beauty into people's lives and make it a prayerful experience," he says.
Like Cook County's doctors, Pennington wears a beeper because he is sometimes on call around the clock. His uniform is dark pants and shirt, white priest collar, and black athletic shoes. For Pennington, who is known to wear an "I Love Jesus" cord around his neck, the shoes are an important part of his ensemble.
"We do a lot of walking," says Pennington, who takes the stairs between hospital floors rather than waiting for overcrowded elevators.
In continuous use as a hospital since 1914, Cook County admits over 20,000 patients each year. The hospital is showing its age, with paint peeling off walls and giant "bug zappers" hanging in hallways that aren't air-conditioned.
Construction is under way on a $551 million replacement hospital scheduled to open in 2002. But until then, the chaplain's office at the hospital is on the sixth floor and is better described as a glorified walk-in closet.
Pennington shares the office with other Cook County chaplains who represent a number of faiths. Volunteers who work with the chaplains also congregate in the office.
The office is adjacent to the hospital's chapel, where Pennington celebrates a noon mass several times each week.
Nurse Angela Tan regularly uses half her lunch hour to attend the mass.
"I want to be with the Lord," says Tan, who works with breast cancer patients and has been a nurse at Cook County for twenty years.
Tan also attended a retreat Pennington organized in January at the Bellarmine Jesuit Retreat House in Barrington, outside Chicago.
Pennington inspires Tan.
"The words that come out of his mouth are so anointed," she says. "Whenever he talks, I always listen."
Pennington, who speaks some Spanish, relies on the hospital's interpreters who speak Spanish, Chinese, and Polish; the Polish interpreter once helped Pennington baptize a sick baby.
When he is working with patients, Pennington says he often doesn't know what is ailing them.
"I want to listen to what they want to tell me," he says.
Pennington has lay volunteers who help him at Cook County. Among them is Jim Seeberg, who graduated with Pennington from Loyola Academy in 1954.
A retired businessman, Seeberg has volunteered at Cook County for more than a year. He says the good feeling he gets from his work is "God's way of telling us it's a good thing to do."
Another of Pennington's volunteers is Todd Kenny, a Jesuit studying at Loyola University Chicago. Kenny, working on an MA in health care ethics, recently started volunteering once a week in Cook County's trauma unit, working with patients and their families.
"Christ is very present with those who are suffering, and I see that and I feel called to respond to that," Kenny says.
He is humble about the role he plays at the hospital.
"I don't know if I bring anything. I think God brings it," he says.
Pennington knows that patients may not be aware that he or another chaplain has visited them because they are unconscious following a serious injury or accident. But he has learned never to speak in the presence of unconscious people as if they aren't there. He says you never know what they can hear.
"If you tell them that you love them ten times," he says, "maybe they'll hear you once."