Lifting spirits

Transport Chaplain Mitchell Holley, center, peeks out the door to check on Jennifer Kennedy, left, the mother of patient Braylon Kennedy, 6, as the rest of the transport team gets him settled in at Akron Children's Hospital in Akron, Ohio, after transporting him from Mercy Medical Center on Kids 5, a mobile intensive-care unit on Thursday, March 8, 2012. (Mike Cardew/Akron Beacon Journal/MCT)

AKRON, Ohio – As a medical helicopter rushes to help a child facing life or death, Mitchell Holley is there to keep everyone grounded.

While the nurses, paramedics and respiratory therapists focus on saving young lives, Holley tends to the spiritual well-being of the patients, their parents and the medical experts who care for them.

For a 12-hour shift each week, the hospital chaplain dons his Akron Children’s Hospital transport team jumpsuit and becomes an official part of the crew on Air Bear, the hospital’s medical helicopter.

Holley also joins the transport team on trips to bring critically ill and injured patients to Children’s aboard the hospital’s ambulances, which serve as mobile intensive-care units.

Whether he travels by ground or air, Holley’s role is the same.

He’s a calming presence, someone who is there to talk, to listen, to assist and, if desired, to pray.

“This is really good care for the staff, patients and families,” he said. “Even the people who don’t have a faith group or religion, they’re very open to me, knowing I’m there as a support.”

A comforter On a recent afternoon, Holley comforted Jennifer Kennedy while Children’s transport nurse Jayme Wiggins and respiratory therapist Melissa Massey prepared her son for the trip from Mercy Medical Center in Canton, Ohio, to Children’s.

Braylon, 6, of Massillon, has made many trips to Children’s for numerous medical problems.

When he had a seizure at school, Braylon’s mother quickly called his neurologist at Children’s and met the ambulance at Mercy’s emergency department. Her husband went to Akron, Ohio, to await Braylon’s arrival.

“It sounds like you’re able to think very quickly, being able to call everyone,” Holley said in admiration.

But standing next to her son in the hospital ER, she can’t hold back her tears.

She confided her fear to Holley: Did Braylon’s seizures mean a shunt placed in his brain had malfunctioned?

Holley knows the family from previous hospital visits.

“You’re a Christian, right?” he asked Braylon’s mother. She nodded.

Quietly, he kneeled next to Braylon’s hospital bed and placed a hand on the boy.

“We are praying this is not another shunt problem,” Holley whispered. “We pray that you also be with his mom, his father, all of his family. Give them strength, and give them peace.”

As the team wheeled Braylon out of the Mercy ER to the awaiting Children’s ambulance, Holley quickly grabbed a plastic bag filled with the boy’s belongings so it wasn’t forgotten in the rush.

“You’re going for a ride, buddy,” he told Braylon, cradling the boy’s small hand in his own.

As the ambulance sped from Canton, Ohio, to Akron, Braylon’s mom said she liked having the chaplain along for the journey.

“It’s nice to have somebody to talk to,” she said.

Flight chaplains The transport program at Akron Children’s Hospital is one of only three nationwide to include a flight chaplain, according to the Association of Professional Flight Chaplains.

The fledgling nonprofit group is working to convince more medical transport programs nationwide to embrace the flight chaplain concept, said Amelie Buchanan, co-founder and executive director of the association.

Before leaving her job to help start the national association, Buchanan served as the nation’s first flight chaplain for five years with a transport program in Colorado.

Buchanan soon discovered she was there to minister to her fellow crew members just as much as she was needed to help with patients in crisis.

“Crew members tend to be Type-A personalities,” she said. “They are wonderful caring for others, but they don’t care for themselves. The culture sort of stresses that you just keep going on, no matter what you see or experience. But when you don’t talk about those types of experiences, it can lead to something very similar to post-traumatic stress. They become very cynical. They act out in ways that can hurt their careers and families.”

Holley, 32, joined Akron Children’s chaplaincy team about 11/2 years ago after completing clinical pastoral education residencies at Methodist Hospital System and Children’s Medical Center in Dallas. He also serves as a chaplain in the Air Force Reserves.

The Virginia native was working as a professional dancer in Las Vegas when he felt called to ministry.

So he hung up his tap shoes and earned his master of divinity from Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary.

Shortly after he started working at Children’s, hospital leaders asked him to join the transport team, in addition to his duties in the emergency department, pediatric intensive care unit, psychiatric department and other areas.

At first, some crew members were admittedly skeptical when the chaplain joined the close-knit team.

But as he spent time with the crew, they quickly realized he was there to help them, not hinder their work.

“He takes care of all of us,” said Tina Wood, a paramedic with the transport team. “You can approach him with anything.”