Why This Neurologist Became a Hospital Chaplain

Until now, I hadn’t met someone who’s both a neurologist and a pastor. Bill Holmes, M.D. and M.Div., is one of a kind. And it’s through these lenses of experience that Holmes—shall I call him Dr.? Or Rev.?—shares his stories in his new book, Thoughts from the Bedside.

But don’t be deceived. Holmes’s experience goes much broader and deeper than his professions. For he also is the survivor of four separate cancers; and he grew up in a family ensnared in urban poverty in his hometown of Louisville, KY.

Holmes, who after 40 years of medical practice is now serving as a hospital chaplain in Louisville, has a lot on his mind as an author and occasional poet. His thoughts range from death and dying to the collision of cancer with faith; from environmental racism to the church’s acceptance of the mobile poor, or not; from random judgments about heaven to wildernesses of hope. That should give you a smattering of the insights found in his book, which I find impossible to pigeonhole. Is this a medical book? A pastoral care book? Essays indicting poverty and racism? Or a poetic ode to living with cancer? Consider it all of the above.

On occasion, I give a book away, and this is one of those occasions. More on that later if you’re interested.

  Bill Holmes, neurologist, pastor,   author, and occasional poet

Bill Holmes, neurologist, pastor,   author, and occasional poet

Holmes’s most poignant moments, for me, find him at the bedside of those on the verge of death. Reading between the lines I could all but feel the instincts of this educated man of the cloth crying out to the medical technician within: “Do something, for God’s sake!” But with heartfelt humility learned from years of realized limitations, Holmes did what he knew best. This successful, respected doctor and chaplain leaned in and listened. It is in these moments that I sensed both the afflicted and the listener were set free from the ravages of fear. If I dare say it, I sensed both were healed.

Holmes writes: “Not long ago I sat at the bedside of a woman who was quite ill with kidney failure. Upon noticing ‘pastoral care’ on my identification badge, Margaret asked about my church affiliation. I explained to her that…I tend to leave that identity at the door. I am there for any person from any church or no church. She immediately replied, ‘No church? That is my church—no church.’ Then she told her story.”

Bill was a neurologist for children and adults from 1973-2007, except for a year in which he took off starting in August 1993. “I was getting burned out from 1988 on. I call that year off ‘my journey into the wilderness.’” 

He returned to practice for more than a decade before hanging it up in 2007. Meantime, he began night courses at the Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary and completed a Master of Divinity there in 2010. He began serving as a hospital chaplain in 2011.

  Bill and wife Joyce with Elmo and the grandkids in the fall of 2016

Bill and wife Joyce with Elmo and the grandkids in the fall of 2016

Intrigued by his insights as well as by his unique career mix, I had a few questions of Bill:

Me: What would you as a chaplain tell yourself as a neurologist, if you could?
Bill:
Sit longer with your patients, and listen more.

CM: Practically speaking, do you think you could have done that given all the pressures on you?
BH:
I’m not sure, but I would like to have tried.

CM: You’ve survived four separate cancers. Over what period of time did they occur?
BH:
From 2010 to 2016. First, there was prostate and bladder carcinoma; then colon polyps; and finally multiple myeloma. And then there was my open heart surgery in 2002 in which I had every complication but dying.

As I said in my book, “I’m white, wealthy, and insured. Otherwise I’d be dead.” (He argues for better medical coverage for all.)

CM: How did you react to these? Were you scared?
BH:
 With the colon surgery, I was afraid my luck had run out. I would immerse myself in all the medical literature, trying to intellectualize what’s going on. After a couple of weeks I’d finally decide okay, let’s get on with it.

I also became one with the Old Testament psalmists. I was pissed off at God and I let him know.

CM: As a neurologist, what were the toughest situations you faced?
BH:
Not being able to give a family an answer for why things are as they are with their child. Even worse was having to give the family a bad diagnosis.

I recently saw the mother of a child I’d diagnosed with an incurable situation. She told me, “I hated you when you told me the news. Your words burned deep. I still can’t get over it.”

CM: As a hospital chaplain, what are some of the toughest emotional issues you see…with the one ill and with the families?
BH:
Two things. First, encountering someone who’s just learned of a new diagnosis. The sick person, though, often does a better job with the news than their family.

Second, is being with an older person who’s having to go through the end of life by themselves, with no family or friends around.

Thank you, Bill. I’ll close with these statements from your book, Thoughts from the Bedside  
“My experiences of the last few years suggest that we as a society often fail the dying as they draw their last breath alone. We have allowed technology to either distort or redefine how we relate to each other.”

“In medicine I have found the more that is written about a subject, the less we actually know with any degree of certainty.”

“Likewise, speculation about afterlife and heaven may bring forth a wealth of print but rarely produce answers that will meet either the demands of the heart or of human reason.”

“Again, we in the church and halls of medicine cannot be dismissive of questions surrounding death and afterlife. As one pastor with a shrug of the shoulders said, ‘These are simply matters of the heart that people have to work out. I don’t believe there are any answers.’”

  The Foreword is by noted Biblical scholar and author Walter Brueggemann

The Foreword is by noted Biblical scholar and author Walter Brueggemann

If you’d like to put your name into the hat for this book’s giveaway, here’s how:

  • Anyone is eligible, whether you subscribe to my newsletter or not. Simply send an email to carlen@carlenmaddux.com between this Wednesday, March 28, and Friday, March 30, by 12:00 Midnight EDT. Indicate that you would like to be included in the drawing and put in the subject line: BOOK GIVEAWAY.
  • One person will be selected at random from those entering. I’ll send you a congratulatory email on Saturday, March 31. You will have 48 hours to respond to my email. If I don’t hear back from you by then, someone else will be selected at random.
  • For more details, click Book Giveaway.

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I had a good visit two weeks ago in Raleigh, N.C., where I shared the story of our 17-year odyssey through Alzheimer’s with about 100 thoughtful and engaged folks at White Memorial Presbyterian. It was great catching up with friends Jan and Rev. Art Ross, Dr. Landy Anderton, and Steve Swayne. They were among my manuscript’s two dozen advance readers; Art wrote the Foreword to my book.

I will be on the road again after Easter for a couple of weeks. I’ll be sharing our story in Athens, AL, with the Mid-South Chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association (Thursday, April 5) and then the next day with the local Rotary Club. Afterwards, I’m off to Atlanta where I’ll meet with a class at All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Midtown Atlanta, right near my alma mater Georgia Tech. That will be at 10:15 a.m. on Sunday, April 8. Then Thursday evening, April 12th, I’ll meet with about 40 members and guests of the Women Alone Together book club.

Thanks,
Carlen
carlen@carlenmaddux.com
www.carlenmaddux.com

PS1 My book A Path Revealed: How Hope, Love, and Joy Found Us Deep in a Maze Called Alzheimer’s can be ordered from any bookstore or found on Amazon.

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PS3 I’m sticking this Alzheimer’s stamp on all my personal and business mail. About 10 cents of the 65-cent cost goes to the National Institutes of Health for research. It’s an easy and inexpensive way to invest in our nation’s wellbeing and future. Join me and thousands of others and Help Stamp Out Alzheimer’s.

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