Skip to main content

Providing Spiritual Care for HCI Patients and Staff

Read Time: 2 minutes

Gerson Annunciacao | John Cooper
Gerson Annunciacao | John Cooper

Two people occupy a small office in a big building. Huntsman Cancer Institute (HCI) chaplains Gerson Annunciacao and John Cooper start and end their days in close quarters, often checking in on one another. But most of their time is spent across the rooms and corridors of the hospital, tending to HCI patients and staff.

"Our job is really about coming alongside people," John says. "We help them make meaning of what they're going through and listen as they explore how their beliefs connect to their experience."

"What is most meaningful to me is the opportunity to be part of people's life in special and difficult times," Gerson says.

Gerson, a minister who first came to the United States to organize a Portuguese-speaking congregation, found his way to hospital chaplaincy at HCI after working in Massachusetts. He still remembers the first time he helped someone in a hospital: he was comforting a woman who had lost a child. He recalls those quiet moments with the family clearly. "I see the divine presence when I am with patients, especially patients at the end of life," Gerson says. "It's not about religion—it's about spirituality."

Chaplain John Cooper​
Chaplain John Cooper​

After spending two months in inpatient medical rehab recovering from an injury, John reoriented his life path toward service. "I survived in part because of the spirit of the staff around me. Not their skill, not their commitment, but their spirit. And the depth here in health care is astonishing—even still."

"As chaplains, we don't only provide spiritual support for patients, but also for staff," Gerson says. "Many times when patients pass away, we have to check on the staff members to see how they are doing and how they are coping with the loss."

"The staff at HCI is comprised entirely of people who care," John says. "They care about the patients, they care about each other, they care about the work we do, the world, their families."

And the COVID-19 pandemic has been, for many—chaplains included—the most trying time of their careers as well as their familial lives. Physical distancing and protective equipment change the way they connect with people. Patients no longer have loved ones staying with them, making chaplain visits all the more important. Gerson had to watch his son's wedding on Zoom. John's wife, a public school teacher, has faced the challenges of education during a pandemic.

Chaplain Gerson Annunciacao
Chaplain Gerson Annunciacao

"COVID weighed everyone down," Gerson says. "But what I can see is that even though the staff has their own concerns, they always give their best to their patients."

This sacrifice and selflessness of HCI staff is not without its toll. In their own lives, Gerson and John find ways to recharge by spending time with their families and getting outside. They encourage other staff to find ways to fill their own tanks.

"Our staff is enduring," John says. "We are resilient. We suffer, yet we find a way to be okay."

Cancer touches all of us.