By AUDRA D.S. BURCH
The patient says he had never prayed before.
Not after he was hit by a car, or in the moments as he lay broken in the street, or in the days after, as he waited for a series of medical tests.
But when the chaplain walked into the hospital room offering a certain kind of healing, he opened up for the first time. He cried as Patricia Wilson-Cone, the exuberant director of pastoral care at Jackson Health System, talked about faith and moving forward. He clasped her hands as she assured him he would not die today. He hugged her as she prayed for him.
“I am here to try to meet people where they are, not where I want them to be. I don’t push religion or a particular denomination,” said Wilson-Cone, 57, of Pembroke Pines. “I walk in the room, hopefully full of light and energy. I listen. I care. And I tell them that I am there for them.’’
Which, at the time, was precisely what Christian Zacarias needed.
“I feel broken both physically and emotionally ,’’ said Zacarias, 27, while being treated at Jackson Memorial Hospital. “I needed someone to go through this hurt with me.’’
The commanding woman with the short hair and vibrant smile is in the business of health and healing and helping patients find their way to a place of solace. It’s a mission she practices day after day at Jackson, one of the nation’s largest and busiest medical centers, and at military hospitals as a U.S. Army reserve chaplain.
Tapping into a rich military background that includes counseling wounded soldiers, Wilson-Cone works with the hospital’s injured and families of the dead. Her job, along with those of other chaplains, rabbis and priests, rests on faith. It’s about comforting the afflicted, providing spiritual support and pastoral counseling. Sometimes that means prayers. Sometimes that means hugs. Sometimes it means simply sitting still.
Since 1987, she has served in the U.S. Army Reserves as a chaplain. At historic Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., she was a clinical pastoral education chaplain. Wilson-Cone is the first female chaplain in the U.S. military to become a fully certified pastoral education supervisor and the first black woman to direct a clinical pastoral education program for the Army. She was a reservist in the 724th MP Battalion in Fort Lauderdale before being reassigned recently to Walter Reed, where she will serve a short run as chaplain to wounded soldiers, then return to Jackson. She was also promoted to lieutenant colonel in March. And, she is one of the Army’s 2,800 chaplains across the world deployed for spiritual leadership.
“They go wherever the soldier is, whether it’s the battlefield or in the hospital or with the families. They are the first line of help for a soldier in need. [Whether it’s] a relationship crisis, or a mental health issue, or an injury, they provide a confidential and trusted ear,’’ says Chaplain Carleton Birch (Lt. Col.), a spokesman for the Army Chief of Chaplains. “Wilson-Cone served in one of the most influential positions in the U.S. Army Chaplain Corps. She has become one of our senior leaders and she is helping to shape future generations of Army chaplains.’’
ANSWERING THE CALL
It’s 8:22 a.m. on a Thursday morning and Wilson-Cone stands before a lectern in the hospital chapel, her face tinted by the vibrant hues of stained glass. She is leading a chorus of This Little Light of Mine, as the students hum along, her big voice filling the chapel. The hymn soon blends seamlessly into one of her last motivational speeches, delivered to a class of 10 before their Aug. 5 graduation.
She speaks about answering the call and spiritual journeys.
“You have to believe that you have the power to create smiles on a sad patient’s face,’’ she tells the class, including those of the Protestant, Catholic, Jewish and Hindu faiths. “At the bedside, you can empower someone’s life, show them light.’’
But that must be done gently and without any religious pressure.
Afterward, Wilson-Cone makes her rounds, visiting patients who have requested the services of a chaplain.
She walks into the room of Jacqueline Taylor, 53, a patient for months as doctors try to make sense of a crushed left leg from a car accident. After small talk, Taylor quickly tells Wilson-Cone that she is a child of God, that she is a member of a Baptist church in Homestead, that she has fallen on tough times and wants to do and be better. The South Miami mother of eight, grandmother of five, also wants Wilson-Cone to pray that she will walk again and “and get my state of mind right.’’
Wilson-Cone, leans in: “Oh God, we know that you are watching over her and that you have the power to heal her mind and body. We ask that, if it is your will, that you let Miss Taylor walk again.’’
Eyes closed, Taylor nods as Wilson-Cone tells her that wellness is within her. If only for a few moments, the chaplain has made the patient feel better.
“I have always wanted to be helpful for as long as I can remember,’’’ she says before heading for the next patient, the victim of a motorcycle collision. “I feel like my job has been to affirm faiths and give hope. And sometimes, I also have to say, death is also a form of healing.’’
That was one of the messages in January when two Miami-Dade police officers were shot and killed in the line of duty. Wilson-Cone was among the first to meet the families in the waiting room at Ryder Trauma Center. “It was difficult because you could see all the hurting. They were asking for prayers but also for answers.’’
She was raised in Cocoa by her grandparents. She grew up in a spiritual home and her grandfather was a deacon for 50 years in one of the town’s Baptist churches. In 2004, she legally added Cone — her grandfather’s surname — in honor of him.
Wilson-Cone has been both a school speech pathologist and librarian but always knew she was meant to do something in the spiritual world. She served at several churches before pursuing clinical chaplain training at a hospital in Washington, D.C. in 1989. She’s currently the grief pastor at New Birth Baptist Church in Miami.
As a reservist, Wilson-Cone served as a chaplain for field hospitals before she entered active duty in 1995, where she was assigned to Walter Reed. She also served as a battalion chaplain at Fort Lewis in Tacoma, Wash., where she ministered to more than 950 soldiers and family members.
In 2003, Wilson-Cone returned to reserve status and joined the Jackson Health Care system. She quickly made an impact.
“She is the one who centers us. The health system has had its ups and down but she has been a steadying force with her wonderful aura and energy,’’ said Ric Cuming Jackson Health System senior vice president and chief nursing executive. “She is able to keep us focused.’’