AKRON, Ohio — As a medical helicopter rushes to help a child facing life or death, Mitchell Holley is there to keep everyone grounded.
While the nurses, paramedics and respiratory therapists focus on saving young lives, Holley tends to the spiritual well-being of the patients, their parents and the medical experts who care for them.
For a 12-hour shift each week, the hospital chaplain dons his Akron Children’s Hospital transport team jumpsuit and becomes an official part of the crew on Air Bear, the hospital’s medical helicopter.
Holley also joins the transport team on trips to bring critically ill and injured patients to Children’s aboard the hospital’s ambulances, which serve as mobile intensive-care units.
Whether he travels by ground or air, Holley’s role is the same. He’s a calming presence — someone who is there to talk, to listen, to assist and, if desired, to pray.
“This is really good care for the staff, patients and families,” he said. “Even the people who don’t have a faith group or religion, they’re very open to me, knowing I’m there as a support.”
On a recent afternoon, Holley comforted Jennifer Kennedy while Children’s transport nurse Jayme Wiggins and respiratory therapist Melissa Massey prepared her son for the trip from Mercy Medical Center in Canton, N.J., to Children’s.
Braylon, 6, of Massillon, has made many trips to Children’s for numerous medical problems. When he had a seizure at school, Braylon’s mother quickly called his neurologist at Children’s and met the ambulance at Mercy’s emergency department. Her husband went to Akron to await Braylon’s arrival.
“It sounds like you’re able to think very quickly, being able to call everyone,” Holley said in admiration.
But standing next to her son in the hospital ER, she can’t hold back her tears.
She confided her fear to Holley: Did Braylon’s seizures mean a shunt placed in his brain had malfunctioned?
Holley knows the family. He’d seen them in the hospital during Braylon’s previous visits.
“You’re a Christian, right?” he asked Braylon’s mother. She nodded.
Quietly, he kneeled next to Braylon’s hospital bed and placed a hand on the boy.
“We are praying this is not another shunt problem,” Holley whispered, eyes tightly shut. “We pray that you also be with his mom, his father, all of his family. Give them strength, and give them peace.”
As the team wheeled Braylon out of the Mercy ER to the awaiting Children’s ambulance, Holley quickly grabbed a plastic bag filled with the boy’s belongings so it wasn’t forgotten in the rush.
“You’re going for a ride, buddy,” he told Braylon, cradling the boy’s small hand in his own.
As the ambulance sped from Canton, Ohio, to Akron, Braylon’s mom said she liked having the chaplain along for the journey.
“It’s nice to have somebody to talk to,” she said.
The transport program at Akron Children’s Hospital is one of only three nationwide to include a flight chaplain, according to the Association of Professional Flight Chaplains.
The fledgling nonprofit group is working to persuade more medical transport programs nationwide to embrace the flight chaplain concept, said Amelie Buchanan, co-founder and executive director of the association.
Before leaving her job to help start the national association, Buchanan served as the nation’s first flight chaplain for five years with a transport program in Colorado.
Buchanan soon discovered she was there to minister to her fellow crew members just as much as she was needed to help with patients in crisis.
“Crew members tend to be Type-A personalities,” she said. “They are wonderful caring for others, but they don’t care for themselves. The culture sort of stresses that you just keep going on, no matter what you see or experience. But when you don’t talk about those types of experiences, it can lead to something very similar to post-traumatic stress. They become very cynical. They act out in ways that can hurt their careers and families.”
Holley, 32, joined Akron Children’s chaplaincy team about 1 1/2 years ago after completing clinical pastoral education residencies at Methodist Hospital System and Children’s Medical Center in Dallas. He also serves as a chaplain in the Air Force Reserves.
The Virginia native was working as a professional dancer in Las Vegas when he felt called to ministry.
So he hung up his tap shoes and earned his master of divinity from Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary.
Shortly after he started working at Children’s, hospital leaders asked him to join the transport team, in addition to his duties in the emergency department, pediatric intensive care unit, psychiatric department and other areas.
“This is a just a very high stress, high anxiety-producing job,” said Kendra Paxton, nurse manager for transport and the communications center at Children’s. “We felt it would be nice to have somebody like Mitchell to get to know the staff, talk with them.”
At first, some crew members were admittedly skeptical when the chaplain joined the close-knit team.
“He’ll just get in our way,” critics complained.
But as he spent time with the crew, they quickly realized he was there to help them, not hinder their work.
“He takes care of all of us,” said Tina Wood, a paramedic with the transport team. “You can approach him with anything.”
He’s also been known to entertain the crew or distract a nervous patient with an impromptu tap dance — a skill that’s earned him the nickname “The Tappin’ Chaplain” among the transport team.
Holley believes it’s his job to help the team members find more joy and peace in their work, regardless of their religion or faith.
“It’s extraordinarily challenging and exhausting for them,” he said. “I talk with them and help them process what they experience. Because they do so many transports, sometimes it’s hard for them to realize how extraordinary their work is.”
Wiggins, a registered nurse with the transport team, said Holley has become “a good filter” for her and the others.
As they sat in the transport center break room eating lunch between calls one Thursday afternoon, Wiggins talked with Holley about a particularly memorable trip.
As a transport nurse, Wiggins usually devotes her efforts to saving lives. This time, however, she was asked to help take a baby home to die.
Holley said little as Wiggins shared her story. But the compassion, the understanding, was visible in his eyes.
“These are the stories I get to hear,” he said.
On another tough trip, Holley was there to ease the anxiety for a woman who had just delivered twins, only to have the struggling babies whisked away for medical care. While Wiggins and the medical team stabilized the newborns, Holley went back and forth between the rooms to provide constant updates for the worried mom.
“As the crew is taking care of the patient,” she said, “Mitchell can take care of the family.
”He brings a nice calmness.”