An unusual blessing in the birthing center

Published 10:23 pm Tuesday, July 28, 2009

It was a first for everybody in the room.

Sentara Obici Hospital has been the site of weddings and funerals, but it had never hosted a full-immersion baptism before. Not in the Women’s Center. Not in a birthing tub.

But on Thursday, that’s exactly the place where a group of 20 or 30 people gathered for the baptism of John Andrew “Andy” Chaney, a 48-year-old terminally ill patient who had come to a saving relationship with Jesus Christ just a month earlier.

It was a ceremony that might never have happened were it not for the faith and faithfulness of family, friends, nurses, a pastor and others who had come into contact with Mr. Chaney in recent weeks.

“It was just the right thing to do,” recalled Obici shift coordinator Betty Jo Stroud, who helped organize the ceremony. “We’re truly about meeting patients’ needs … not only the needs of the body, but spiritual needs, as well.”

After making a public profession of his new faith a month or so ago at Southside Baptist Church, Mr. Chaney had told his family and the church that he wanted to be baptized. He was even placed on the schedule for the church’s monthly baptismal service.

Before that ceremony could take place, though, he fell.

Mr. Chaney had been a diabetes patient for more than two years and received regular dialysis treatments through a port in his arm. The disease had caused him to have his leg amputated and had resulted in numerous health issues over the years.

When he fell a couple of weeks ago, according to his sister-in-law Ina Rawls, he injured his nub, and an infection quickly set in, quickly spreading throughout his body and attacking his heart and brain.

At Obici Hospital last Monday, doctors told family members that there was nothing they could do to save Mr. Chaney’s life. The infection would take his life soon, and he would be unable to leave the hospital.

When Pastor Stewart McCarter of Southside Baptist came to visit on Monday, it didn’t look as if Mr. Chaney would get his wish to be baptized. He still had the dialysis port — which couldn’t get wet — and he was unconscious.

Sprinkling was not an option, as Baptists believe in total immersion, and Mr. Chaney would have to be awake and free of the dialysis port for that to take place.

When Andy Chaney’s wife Susan learned that dialysis would only prolong her husband’s suffering, she told doctors to remove the port.

At that point, Stroud, who has been a nurse at Obici for 11 years, heard of his wish and began thinking of ways to make it come true.

“She handled every bit of it,” Mrs. Chaney said. “People really cared to help him make (his wish) come true.”

“I had toyed with the idea of an inflatable pool from Walmart,” Stroud said on Friday.

But then she had an idea. Why not use a birthing tub for the ceremony?

After getting approvals from all of the doctors and hospital administrators involved, she began coordinating the event with the help of Mary Williams, manager of the hospital’s birthing center. Stroud called Pastor McCarter and family members and organized candles, flowers, dim lights and soft music for the ceremony.

On Thursday morning, Mr. Chaney was awake and alert, ready for his baptism.

Hospital staff put him in a birthing chair and wheeled him to the third-floor women’s center, where the small birthing room had been prepared.

With people crammed into the room and spilling into the hallway, McCarter delivered a brief message that concentrated on the symbolism of what was taking place.

Then with the help of several people — including Stroud, who stood in the tub with the patient — Mr. Chaney was baptized.

For Baptists, immersion in the water is symbolic of the new life that Christ’s followers have in Him. The meaningfulness of that rebirth being expressed though baptism in a room where babies enter the world was clear to everybody in the room.

“The symbolism of that was so dramatic,” Pastor Stewart McCarter said on Tuesday. “It was like God was saying, ‘This is Me doing this.’”

“I cried through the whole thing,” Susan Chaney said on Friday. “When he came up out of the water, he gave a thumbs up.”

Mr. Chaney died on Friday.

“(The baptism) brought joy to him, and it encouraged all of us,” McCarter said Tuesday on his way to the funeral home to be with the family.

McCarter said he was especially excited by the fact that Mr. Chaney’s story has become so widely known.

“Even after his death … he gets to tell his story to the whole city,” he said. “Some people that have been Christians 40 years don’t do that. Just through his desire to (be baptized), God worked it out for him in a way that brought greater glory to God.”

In the hours following the ceremony, it was clear that the baptism had changed the lives of many who were involved in it.

“I want to share a story with you that touched so many lives this morning — and perhaps one of the most profound things I’ve been privileged to witness,” wrote Phyllis Stoneburner, Obici’s vice president of patient services, in an e-mail to Sentara’s corporate office.

“This morning had a profound impact on more than our patient. Each and every one of us who was privileged to be there felt blessed.”