It’s three o’clock on a damp Wednesday afternoon when I unlock the last wooden door into Ward 531—twelve cinder-block bedrooms and a common room tucked away in the back of John Umstead Hospital, in Butner, N.C. Precisely two and a half seconds later, a gleefully shrieking blur—blond hair, translucent skin, eyes bright as birthday candles—swarms onto my lap and clamps his sticky fingers around my neck. “Hi,” he says. “I’m new. I’m 5.”
“Really?” I ask. “I would never have guessed.”
We consider each other for a moment. Then his eyes slide down to the left of my wheelchair, and he squeals. “Doggie!” He looks at me again, suddenly unsure. He’s only been in the hospital a few days, but his memories of life outside are already fragmenting. His world is no longer steady. “It’s a doggie?”
“Yes,” I tell my newest patient firmly. “It’s a nice doggie.”
Nice Doggie, who prefers to be addressed as Willa the Astonishingly Wonderful Service Dog, hears her cue. She steps languidly to the front of my wheelchair and nudges her slim head under his arm. He scrambles off my lap and curls up on the linoleum, burrowing his face into her belly. She licks his exposed ear, then glances up at me: I’ve got this one. You take care of the rest.
So I take a breath, make sure my chaplain badge and keys are secure, and turn my attention to the other children who live on Ward 531. Like the adult patients at John Umstead, these kids have been diagnosed with severe psychiatric disorders. They come here because they are considered “dangerous to themselves or others.” They are mentally ill. Many of them have been abused. They are also all under the age of 11. As their chaplain, I have three jobs: Listen to their stories. Stay steady, calm and friendly. And, of course, let them play with my dog.
Willa and I are part of a group of five intern chaplains participating in Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) at John Umstead. I am a postulant for holy orders in the Episcopal Church, which is a fancy way of saying that I hope to be ordained as an Episcopal priest. I also have spastic cerebral palsy, a neuromuscular disorder that means that my muscles don’t speak the same dialect as my brain. I am doing my required CPE at the state mental hospital because working and praying with people who have physical and mental disabilities has always been part of my calling.