Chaplain Adie Johnson recalled that she was attending in a neonatal unit at St. Joseph Hospital in Denver, Colo., as a medical team tried to resuscitate an infant whose heart had suddenly stopped.
The baby had been in the unit for several months, had seemed to be doing fine, and had been scheduled to go home soon. And now this happened amid a cluster of other tragedies at the hospital, ranging from the suicide of a beloved staff member to the deaths of other infants.
“I stood in that room with the family and that amazing team and watched them do chest compressions on this baby. And intubate . . . and all those other things that happen … when a patient’s heart stops,” said Johnson.
“But after a long time, maybe 45 minutes of coding, they called it. And as we stood watching, that precious little baby lay in that hospital crib and died. . . . We didn’t win. We couldn’t win. The illness won. The frailty of human life won.”
As hard it was on everyone involved, the infant’s death helped to underscore the uncertainties involved in health care — reminding Johnson of the tough role she plays in a hospital setting, where death is a common reality.
“As a chaplain, I can be not only a part of supporting patients and families in difficulty, but also a part of supporting staff through their losses, our losses,” said Johnson, one of 40 hospital chaplains currently endorsed by the CRC’s Chaplaincy and Care office.
Johnson began her work in hospital chaplaincy later in life, and she says it is a role for which her own life experience has prepared her, allowing her often to be the presence of God in hard circumstances.
Johnson grew up in the Washington, D.C., area and traces the foundations of her faith to attending various Protestant churches in her younger years. She came to a firm belief in Christ, she said, while part of a youth ministry in high school.
Later, after graduating from the University of Maryland, where she majored in parks and recreation, Johnson moved to Colorado with plans to be a park ranger. But then she got married and began raising a family.
“I also spent time volunteering [in church] and felt a call to serving in a leadership role,” she said.
Once her children were grown, she enrolled at Denver Theological Seminary and helped to plant Creekside CRC in Boulder, Colo.
“We were a small, nontraditional community group. We worked with people in jail, the homeless, the elderly. I loved it; it was great,” said Johnson, who was ordained as a commissioned pastor in 2013. “I realized I felt comfortable visiting folks when they were sick or facing tragedy.”
But the church plant wasn’t able to sustain itself, and it closed. Meanwhile, Johnson, whose marriage of many years had ended, needed to move back to Maryland to be with family members. Around the same time, she learned about the CRC Chaplaincy and Care ministry and decided to train to be a hospital chaplain.
Awarded a stipend to train at Johns Hopkins Medical Center in Baltimore, Md., she discovered a ministry that suited her in many ways, bringing out her gifts and at the same time helping her to better understand her own spiritual journey.
“It was a transformational experience. Johns Hopkins had a lot of amazing medicine and diversity that I really loved. I was there for 15 months, and it was a very powerful time,” said Johnson.
While studying at Johns Hopkins, she spent time with her mother, who was ill, and Johnson was able to be on hand when her mother died.
“That was the first death that I attended. I was there when she took her last breath,” said Johnson.
In that experience, Johnson added, “my mother gave me an important gift . . . [helping me know] what to do when I came back to Colorado” to work as a chaplain.
About two years ago, Johnson began working at the Denver hospital — a medical center “that gets a lot of homeless and elderly and people on the margins,” she said.
In her work, she serves patients throughout the facility but focuses mainly on specialized units that treat children. As a chaplain, she is called to be present for code blue situations (requiring immediate medical attention) and deaths.
“We show up when things are messy,” said Johnson. “If we are lucky, we have built relationships with the patient and family before things get difficult.”
In the room that day with the neonatal infant who died, Johnson stood with family members whom she had gotten to know — and that gave her the opportunity to join deeply in their grief and loss and to offer comfort in Jesus’ name.
“A chaplain is the ultimate outreach community pastor,” said Johnson. “I’ve prayed with a Wiccan and with Muslims and others who aren’t Christians. We are endorsed by a legitimate church body, but when we go into a hospital room, we are there for the patient and to help them realize they are valued by God.”
Many of the people she meets are scared and blame themselves for their mistakes, even for being sick. Many ask questions that are difficult to answer.
“People ask why there is so much hardship, but there are no easy answers,” she said. “I don’t deny there is so much suffering in the world, and yet I let people know we serve a good God.”
It’s crucial, she said, to represent to all patients the Savior who died on the cross and who loves and forgives everyone — the God who is with everyone in their pain. “I see mine as a ministry of presence, of accompanying people,” she said.
The job can take a personal toll, as it did for Johnson and others during that series of tragedies, capped by the death of the infant in the neonatal unit. But she has been able to learn from her experiences and to cope — all with the help of the God who has been with her through all of her struggles.
Johnson said she has also grown to see how much strength she gains from sharing her difficulties with others who work in the hospital.
“What I have seen as a chaplain is that we as a staff go to one another when it’s bad, rough, unintelligible. We look out for one another. We seek out one another. We cry together. We spell a coworker so that they can have a moment away from their desk or off their unit. We step in so that others can step out. And we show up again on the next shift and do it all over again.”