The Presbytery of Los Ranchos has supported the chaplaincy consortium at LAC + USC Medical Center for many years.
Rev. Elizabeth Gibbs Zehnder is the current staff chaplain at LAC + USC. LAC + USCV is a safety-net hospital, serving many without other options. Housing a trauma center, LAC + USC also provides care for county jail inmates.
Rev. Zehnder works with patients, families, and staff praying with them, hearing their concerns, supporting families when a patient has died and accompanying patients in moments of bad news.
Chaplains are considered essential staff and, due to COVID, there are few visitors allowed. This creates a much higher burden on patients and staff. Elizabeth spends time reaching out to family members, providing spiritual guidance over the phone, staying connected to patients’ families, and offering moral support to the staff. COVID has stretched the capacity for LAC + USC. Though the number of COVID patients has started to decline, it has felt like a marathon without a finish line.
“A patient was coming to the end of life. The medical team asked that I call her son, a college student. He was bewildered. They had just buried his grandmother from COVID. He had finals the next week. He didn’t know how to put words to it. This was a young man grappling with the death of his mom and grandmother and wondering what it means, what he will do, how he will be alone.”
Elizabeth offered him support, helping him bridge his spiritual inheritance. She went on to share, “At least that young man was able to talk with someone that understood what was happening.”
Since COVID, visitor restrictions have increased. Elizabeth lamented, “When a baby is born, the mother gets one person to be with her, but that person has to leave once the baby is born. If a patient is at the end of life, they get no personal contact with anyone. They are allowed to visit through glass, but only for 15 minutes. It is intense to accompany people as they come to say goodbye and relay those prayers and offer blessings at the bedside.”
Elizabeth continued to share, “In those moments, when the end of life is near, people that never considered they would die want to talk about what happens next. They are ready. People that never prayed want to pray. What they long for is relationships restored, reconciliation, those aspects of healing are so very much available to them in that part of their life when they are moving towards death. It is a privilege to witness how God moves in their lives and the way in which people are able to move past old hurts, conflicts, and brokenness, to step into something new as they turn to God in end of life.”
Elizabeth is at the hospital Monday through Friday. While there she leads a section of the Emergency Room where there are 150 beds. She ministers to patients with cancer, advanced liver disease, and is on call for a crisis. She never knows what the day will hold.
Her call was not always to chaplaincy. She had to do a unit of Clinical Pastoral Education. She hated it. It was not her forte. She finished seminary and served as a pastor at a church in the center city of Los Angeles for 18 years. She felt like that chapter of her ministry was closing even though things were going great. Then a chaplain position came open. She was encouraged to apply. She tried it and 5 ½ years later she is still there. It feels like the experience she had in the congregational setting prepared her for this calling.
County Hospital doesn’t hire chaplains. Each has a sponsoring body. For over 50 years, Presbyterians have committed to care for the people of Los Angeles in this way. Elizabeth went on to share, “This is an aspect of Presbyterian witness that is inspiring and noteworthy. It speaks to the quiet firm conviction that we are part of the human family as God’s creation. We are sent by Christ into the world and the community. Let’s celebrate it!”
There are days that Elizabeth walks into situations that could not possibly be worse. She never feels alone. Not only is God with her, but she believes the prayers from God’s people are supporting her and lifting her up.
She continues to be grateful for your prayers and support. “They are meaningful to me and make a huge difference in my ministry.”