As Kevin and Amy Hoyt waited while their 9-year-old daughter Jaydon underwent brain surgery at Arkansas Children’s Hospital, fear began to set in as time passed during her 3 ½ hour surgery April 9.  

“It was very scary,” Amy recalled. “I was getting nervous, ‘OK, it’s taking too long, she should be out by now or we should be hearing something.’”  

At that moment, Chaplain James Henrich walked in. He happened to be a member of the family’s church but had no idea their daughter was having surgery that day. During their wait, Henrich sat with the Hoyts as they talked about Jaydon and their family. He was there when the surgeon told them surgery was a success and during her ICU recovery. Henrich checked on them all four days they were in the hospital.  

“It made you feel like somebody cared what you were going through. We’re private, and we didn’t share this with a lot of people,” Amy said. “It was a comfort having him there and knowing there was somebody there who would pray with you, somebody watching over you.”  

The Hoyt family’s story is common. They are one of many families receiving spiritual and emotional support from Arkansas Children’s Pastoral Care.  

“Our role as chaplains is to support and attend to the diverse religious/spiritual and emotional needs, including the bereavement needs, of the patients, families and team members of Arkansas Children’s. We ensure this support is available to those who wish to use it,” said Brent Fairchild, manager of pastoral care at Arkansas Children’s Hospital (ACH) in Little Rock.  

Legacy of Care  

Chaplains are members of the clergy who minister in a specific setting, like a hospital, and have been an integral part of Arkansas Children’s history. Though it’s unclear when the official pastoral care program started at ACH, a pastor was on the board in its earliest years as an orphanage in 1912.  

“There’s been clergy involved in some way from the very beginning,” Fairchild said.  

Today, the program includes three full-time chaplains at ACH and one at Arkansas Children’s Northwest (ACNW) in Springdale. Each location has chaplains who are on-call during weekends and evening shifts. Chaplains are on-call 24/7. Pastoral care also works closely with the Center for Good Mourning, which offers grief support for children throughout Arkansas as well as patients, families and staff if needed.  

Hospital chaplains are master-level prepared, endorsed and licensed, are board-certified and have at least a year of clinical pastoral education in a hospital prior to being hired at Arkansas Children’s. Pastoral care hosts events throughout the year, including three patient memorial services, two in Little Rock and one in Springdale, and an employee memorial service. They are also involved in the organ donation services, local clergy education and blessings over families and patients before a major medical event or when being discharged after an extended stay.   

Like doctors, chaplains round in various departments throughout the hospital, stopping by patient rooms to offer a listening ear or support. In critical care units, they visit within three days of a patient’s arrival. They regularly round on all patients in the emergency department, intensive care units, hematology/oncology and burn unit. They also frequently visit other units, relying on clinical team members to direct them toward patients and families who may need more support after a surgery, new diagnosis or chronic illness. Pastoral care volunteers participate in the Faithful Friends Program, delivering stuffed animals, prayer cards and information about pastoral care to patients and their families on the medical and surgical floors.  

“One of the things I always live by is to love people, regardless of who they are, where they’re at, whether they’re in the hallway, at the bedside or in the bed themselves. I’m going to love them because that’s what Scripture says to do: ‘And so love the Lord your God with your whole heart, mind, soul and strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself.’ I do my best to live by this every day as I walk the halls, sit in meetings or visit the patient and family in their room,” Fairchild said.  

'Ministry of Presence’  

When chaplains knock on a patient’s door, they know it’s more than a hospital room.  

“We’re walking into their home. We knock as if we’re knocking on their home’s door. We respect that space,” Fairchild said.  

Chaplains often try to be at the child’s level, many times kneeling to not tower over the patient. As a chaplain it is important to notice the personal things in each room, which can be a treasured stuffed animal, a special blanket, religious items or even a string of lights a long-term patient may have hung. Noticing the blinds drawn on a sunny day can also help them understand a patient’s mood.  

When Fairchild walks into a room, he introduces himself, and while their parents or caregivers usually speak up first, he makes it a point to ask the patient how they are doing that day and if prayer is helpful to them.  

“If the child says yes, especially if the child is a preteen or older, I always ask, ‘How can I pray for you?' Or, ‘What is something you’d like me to pray for?’ Many times, they’ll say, ‘Will you pray for my mom and dad?’,” he said.  

A chaplain’s ministry evolves to fit the patient and family, as well as their beliefs. Fairchild said chaplaincy is not about religion but being present for what they need. One of the top responsibilities of a chaplain is advocating for a family, bringing a concern or fear of the patient or family to the medical team, sitting with them as they discuss their child’s care with the clinical team and reaching out to a family’s church or religious community for more support.  

“It may be a Hindu family who may not be comfortable saying, ‘Can I have my prayer beads hung up in the room or in the bed?’ We have a resource list of many excellent faith group leaders we reach out to if the family has a specific religious need the chaplain's unable to personally offer. We make sure that their faith, beliefs and culture is always a part of their care,” Fairchild said. “A lot of it is just listening. It’s just sitting and listening to their story and their heartache or excitement at times. It’s just being present with them. We call it a ministry of presence.”  


'Jump in the Ditch’

Throughout the moments of stress, fear and doubt families may experience navigating a health crisis with their child, Fairchild said it’s a chaplain’s job to be with them.  

“As a chaplain, we don’t walk along, like they’re down here and we’re up here saying, ‘You can do it, you can do it,’ and then leave. No, we jump in the ditch. And we walk with them, good or bad. We get down and trudge with them in the midst of whatever is going on,” he said.  

Those ditch moments happen daily and sometimes all at once.  

“Recently, I received a page that a baby was declining, and the mother needed support, so I immediately went to the unit. Then, while I was on my way, someone sent another page, ‘Hey, you’re going to be in that room? Well, two doors down, this family is just getting a diagnosis that’s not so good. Can you come in and see them?’ And while I was with them, I got a call saying there’s a child going on ECMO in another unit and the family is facing tough decisions and needs support,” Fairchild said. “And then during that time, I get a call from a pastor saying, ‘We got a family from our church whose child is having surgery, and we’re not able to get down there. Would you mind swinging by and seeing them?’”  

While that quick succession is not typical, it does happen. During all those calls, the chaplain must provide effective moments of unhurried spiritual care.  

“There was a mom who did not speak English; we had our interpreter there. She’s weeping by herself, and her child is being emergently cared for by a room full of medical personnel. Just being able to stand there with her and pray with her as she weeps, gives strength and makes a difference,” Fairchild said.  

Scott Martin, full-time staff chaplain at ACNW, said chaplains help families “hold the burden” of what’s happening in their lives.  

“I believe in the ‘imago Dei,’ Latin for the ‘image of God,’ in people. God makes every person unique and loves people,” Martin said. “For me, as a chaplain, it’s key to make sure families feel valued and loved, and no matter what happens, there’s someone walking there with them.”  

James Henrich, a full-time ACH chaplain, said they often take their lead from the families on what is needed.  

“Sometimes they need someone to hold their hand, sometimes they just need someone to sit next to them, sometimes they need your presence or everyone to leave,” Henrich said. “The most immediate needs are medical, but there are other needs. It’s being able to have a part in meeting those spiritual and emotional needs people have.”  

Martin said no matter what a family may face, their hope as chaplains is for “better days” for the families they serve.  

“Hope is a powerful thing, and our hope is always to build their hope up and encourage them in that moment, wherever they’re at,” Martin said. “We just have to be prepared to meet them where they’re at.”  

*This article was written by the Arkansas Children's content team.


Walking with Arkansas Children's Team Members

Another essential role of a chaplain is to be present to Arkansas Children’s team members, ensuring they’re supported to provide the best care for patients.  

“It’s also being able to care for that staff at the same time, knowing sometimes there are residents or nurses, even though they may have worked on a unit for a long time, they may not have worked a crisis like I’m coming into, so it’s providing support for them,” Fairchild said. “Sometimes it triggers something because their mom or grandmother was just diagnosed with something similar. They need to process.”  

Those team member conversations don’t always happen in the moment. Often, it’s after.  

“I was visiting with a physician recently, just walking down the hall. That’s how I catch most of them. I walk with them wherever they’re heading. There was a situation that didn’t go so well, and I was just making sure that he and his team were well,” Fairchild said. “And he started processing some things, all the pressures and just began to debrief. That’s what they need. He gets on the elevator, and we go our separate ways. And that’s what’s needed — just those moments.”