John Pennington, S.J., received his call to be a servant of the Lord when he was young. But it took a personal tragedy in 1983—the death of his mother—to convince him that he was truly in the right line of work.
While he spent many days providing comfort to dying patients, he wasn’t able to make it to his mother’s side when she died in a nursing home 18 years ago. Instead, a nurse held her hand.
“I memorized the words the nurse said to me,” Pennington says. “She told me, ‘Your mother opened her eyes and looked at me. What a thrill it was to know that one moment she was looking at me, and the next she was looking at God.’ That gave me the desire to bring beauty into the lives of the suffering.”
And those he sees are often suffering. Pennington is a chaplain at Chicago’s Cook County Hospital, the real-life setting for the popular TV show “ER.” And, he says, television has nothing on real life. While the flurry of events that occur in a single episode are a bit unrealistic, the intensity of what happens is not. Gunshot wounds, motorcycle accidents and the multiplicity of injuries that come as a result of gang fights are common.
“It’s a roller coaster of emotions,” he says. “One day you see a premature newborn baby who makes it and you rejoice. Then you might go pray with someone who’s going to die in half an hour. It’s one extreme to the other.”
Cook County Hospital, which is as world-renowned for its cancer, AIDS and neonatal intensive care facilities as its emergency room, admits 20,000 patients a year, most of whom are poor.
“Not only do they have no health insurance,” says Pennington, “many of them have no homes and no meals. The president of our board describes us as a ‘safety net for the indigent.’”
Pennington, a 1958 graduate, started at Cook County Hospital seven years ago after working as a chaplain in hospitals in wealthier, less hostile communities. He previously served at suburban Chicago’s Loyola Medical Center for four years, which proved to be quite a contrast to the socioeconomic struggles and inner-city strife he sees now.
On tough days, Pennington says, he likes to recall good experiences—such as the baby whose birth weight was 1 pound, 13 ounces, but who visited him a year later weighing a healthy 20 pounds. He also remembers Myra, a 10-year-old with a tumor that prevented her from moving. He prayed for her and she squeezed his hand in response. A year later, she requested Pennington to perform her first Holy Communion.
“What keeps me going the most,” he says, “is a strong belief in the resurrection. I believe that all the hell you see at Cook County Hospital is not the final answer, and that some of the suffering people I have met are going to be face-to-face with Jesus.”
Photography by Mike Marcotte