By Wendy A. Hoke
CLEVELAND-The burn unit on the fifth floor of MetroHealth’s near west side campus is quiet today. As Father Art Snedecker, the Catholic chaplain, enters the unit he walks past the nurse’s station when his pager goes off. He turns to use the phone and check in on a patient. After a brief call, all is well—for now.
Snedecker is the chaplain for all the hospital’s critical care units, including patients and staff, and administers to its many Catholic patients.
Lynne Yurko, nurse manager of the burn unit, is standing nearby and smiles when she sees him coming down the hallway. “He is our priest, friend and colleague,” she says. “We laugh together and cry together and when something awful or evil happens, we pray together,” she says.
His presence fosters a peaceful environment in this critical care unit where stress levels frequently run very high.
“Father Art,” as his ID badge says, has been part of the hospital’s multi-disciplinary team for 10 years, and it’s a position that mixes his love of Christ and the power of prayer in healing with the miracles of modern medicine.
His presence has become so important to the burn unit that he, Yurko and three physicians conducted research on the role his pastoral care plays in reducing pain and anxiety in burn patients.
Using prayer, pastoral counseling, guided imagery (the use of rhythmic breathing and visualization) and breath of God (imagining the spirit of God entering them as they breathe), researchers found a significant decrease in both pain and anxiety for patients regardless of gender or faith community affiliation.
The work of guided imagery grew out of Father Snedecker’s work with a 15-year-old burn patient a number of years ago. “This boy had a high degree of pain and anxiety and was under sedation. He should not have remembered anything. But he ran with the image of being at a lake and fishing. In between expletives he would talk about the weather, the day, the clouds, the sky. What was so incredible was when he came out of sedation he wanted to apologize for his language. He should not have even remembered it,” he says, because of the heavy medications.
The therapy worked as Father Snedecker knew it would.
When he was in seminary in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Father Snedecker would have reflection retreats in which he was asked to picture himself sitting at a table with Jesus. “What’s he wearing? Is he smiling? Can you look into his eyes? What is he saying?”
Daydreaming and the process of sighing or expelling a deep breath is the body’s natural release of stress. That’s what Father Snedecker uses to empower patients in their own healing. “It’s as powerful as a person’s imagination and as intimate as their breath.”
In hindsight his path seems very clear.
Father Snedecker had always wanted to become a doctor. He was an orderly at Parma General Hospital and entered Bowling Green State University as a pre-med major. But after he entered college he received a different calling and chose instead to enter the seminary.
After his ordination, he was given a choice to pursue campus ministry or hospital chaplaincy. One night while sitting outside the chapel at Parma Hospital, he prayed for guidance. “I said no to chaplaincy and as I was driving away I wondered why I did that.
“Looking back I think I was too young and didn’t have enough life experience,” he says.
After years as a campus minister and then a parish priest, he suffered a heart attack and, at age 48, required open-heart surgery.
“I knew I needed to make lifestyle changes and I knew I’d been given a second chance,” he says. Against the advice of friends, he resigned as pastor of Immaculate Conception in Akron, and it wasn’t long after that former Bishop Anthony Pilla asked if he’d consider being a hospital chaplain.
What began as a temporary assignment became much more from the first moment Father Snedecker, now 60, set foot on MetroHealth. “As soon as I walked in the doors, I fell in love with the place. God blesses Metro because it cares for the poor,” he says.
“I learned very early on that I couldn’t do this alone. Every unit of the hospital operates as a team in caring for the patient. The work is not mine alone because Christ is here with me.”
The job remains tough because he faces not only trauma and tragedy, but also acts of evil at times. “My faith has been challenged, but also rewarded and I am a richer person for having this work in my life.”
Hoke is a freelance writer.