Every day, Doris Whitaker goes where many people don’t have the strength, or desire, or expertise, to go.
At the University of Mississippi Medical Center, she comforts the families of babies born far too soon. She hugs those being treated for painful and chronic ailments, and scans the Emergency Department for the sick and hurting waiting to see a doctor, or family members in shock because a loved one has suffered a traumatic injury.
She walks through the Medical Center’s Winfred L. Wiser Hospital for Women and Infants, checking on patients she’s already ministered to, and approaching those who may be grappling with a difficult diagnosis.
Doris Whitaker was commissioned by the Church of God in Christ in 2004. As the new director of the Medical Center’s Pastoral Services, she leads a staff of four chaplains, at least one of them on call 24/7 to tend to patients, families and UMMC staff.
Some want prayer, as you’d expect in the Bible Belt. Others just need a listening ear, a timely hug, or someone to sit silently with them.
“When we see patients, we see them as chaplains,” Whitaker said. “A pastor is generally more evangelical. We are there to comfort them, and to be present with them.
“Some may ask for prayer. The patient has to open that door, and when I pray with them, I pray from my Christian faith,” she said. “But, I’ve dealt with a Wiccan. I’ve said an atheist funeral. We have to go with the flow, and we’re not there to proselytize.”
Whitaker checks on a tiny infant in the Medical Center's neonatal intensive care unit.
Whitaker, a Chicago native who began work at UMMC in 2010, rose through the ranks upon the retirement of longtime leader Dr. Ruth Black. Her full-time staff, all ordained ministers, includes Linda McComb, Jeff Murphy, Timothy McGregor, and her staff replacement, who will be hired soon.
“We’re trained in such a way that we can minister to any religious tradition out there, and still be able to keep our spiritual identity intact,” Whitaker said. “We are ecclesiastically endorsed by our religious tradition to minister to anyone in the clinical setting.”
What makes Whitaker a great fit?
“It’s her passion for what she does. A lot of people call it charisma. A lot of people call it sparkle,” said Daynelle Lee, Whitaker’s supervisor and director of respiratory care and associated clinical services.
“She has a true calling, and the way she communicates is really unique,” Lee said. “She has a way of carrying a positive message.”
Whitaker’s step is lively as she makes her rounds of patient floors, and she delivers warm greetings and hugs to employees at every turn. Many know her well, and appreciate how she helps them do their jobs by helping their patients – and often, at times where emotions are raw and tears flow freely.
“When a child is passing, she can be here for hours, supporting me and praying with that mom,” said Cindy Stubblefield, a social worker in the neonatal intensive care unit. “Her prayers are so personal to that family. When we need a lift, she’s there for us to help carry that load. You feel like you’ve known her forever.”
Neonatologist Dr. Bolaji Famuyide facilitates a pediatric ethics lecture series at the Medical Center. “We spend a lot of time together,” she said of Whitaker, who co-teaches a nursing ethics class.
“She’s an advocate for the babies. When things get into an ethical situation, she helps the families weigh the pros and cons, and then she supports them when they make a decision.”
Whitaker gives comfort to Johnson-Robertson as she cradles her six-day-old son, Kaheim.
Whitaker recently visited with Lakeishia Johnson-Robertson of Jackson as she cradled six-day-old Kaheim Robertson in a rocking chair at the NICU. The right arm of Kaheim, 11 pounds, 2 ounces at birth, was broken during the birthing process.
“I think it’s a very good thing to speak with a chaplain,” Johnson-Robertson said. “Especially when you’re down here, you really need it.”
When Whitaker caught up with Natchez resident Patricia Minor in a waiting room, she greeted her as an old friend. They’ve visited several times during Minor’s treatment at UMMC.
“Hey, baby! Can I hug your neck?” Whitaker asked before the two launched into a discussion about their mutual love for shrimp. “We’re serious about our seafood,” Whitaker explained.
Whitaker gives a hug and bright conversation to Minor.
“She wanted $15.99 a pound for them across the river, and I was paying $12.99,” Minor said of a shrimp shopping foray into Louisiana.
“That’s highway robbery!” Whitaker told her.
Whitaker “is one of my babies,” said Minor, who’s being treated for an abdominal infection. “She is so kind.”
Before she left that waiting room, Whitaker slid into a chair next to a man who was waiting alone for treatment. “We have chaplain services if you need them,” she said quietly. “You have pretty eyes.”
Expect the unexpected from Whitaker. She recently signed a marriage license for Shannon Kennedy, a UMMC licensed practical nurse. She and her fiancé, UMMC biomedical engineering supervisor David Keeney, plan to wed Nov. 15.
“She is a Godly woman. I didn’t want just anyone to sign it,” Kennedy said. “We had prayer together, and she embraced me with open arms.”
Whitaker already has future plans for Pastoral Services, Lee said.
“She has a vision to expand our pastoral care,” Lee said. “She has brought a lot of good ideas to the front and has gotten a real buy-in from her peers. She truly believes in what she is doing.”