Hospital janitor brings amazing grace to sick

Published: February 18, 2006 | 3560th good news item since 2003

Willie Pham stoops a bit and dips his mop into the metal bucket. He swishes the rope head over tired hospital linoleum, humming barely loud enough for the woman in the bed a few feet away to hear. Amazing grace. How sweet the sound. That saved a wretch like me.

He sings a few words of the old hymn, just above a whisper, then goes back to humming.

The woman never moves.

If she were awake, and well enough, this patient might ask Willie about his job mopping and scrubbing in the intensive care unit.

“I’m here to do more important things,” he’d say in his deep, soothing voice.

The Medical Intensive Care Unit at University Hospitals of Cleveland is serious business.

Its huge nurses station is surrounded by 20 private rooms filled with IV drips and intimidating medical equipment.

Relatives sit silently at bedsides, waiting for eyes to open or a word to be spoken, for any small beacon of hope.

“When people come here, this is the worst time of their lives,” says Rachel Vanek, a nurse practitioner in the unit. “We get the sickest of the sick.”

Willie Pham loves his work.

“I don’t look at my job as a lower job,” he says. “I was placed here for a purpose.”

Pham is a janitor. But people who know him call him other things: Mr. Willie. Brother Willie. An inspiration, a blessing, a saint. An angel sent by God.

Or they’re like Nancy Randall. She met Pham when she awoke from a coma in May 2004 and saw nothing but white light and Pham praying.

And then, like most people who talk about Pham, she begins to cry, tears of gratitude for how he helped her recover from a bad bout of pneumonia.

“I was in the hospital 5 ½ months,” Randall says, “and … all the days that he worked, he would come and pray with me.

“You know how you give up? I was so sick, I just about gave up. It fills me up to think about he helped me come back.”

Kimberly Kotora, the unit’s acting head nurse, says, “I don’t know how he does it, but he can bring a family together and have them praying over a patient in minutes.

“We had an incident up here where we had three very, very sick patients and the Catholic priest was overextended and couldn’t help,” Kotora says.

Of course, Pham stepped in.

Abby Gretter, another nurse, says: “I’m not even sure what religion Willie is, but he makes you feel warm because he has such a kind heart. Willie just bellies up to the bedside and offers some incredible spiritual words.”

The people who spend days and months in intensive care have their stories, too. Pham never forces religion on anyone, they say. He waits, with great respect, for someone to ask him to pray.

“Willie can sense boundaries,” says Kathy Ellsworth, who became friends with Pham when her son, Jared, was in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit at Rainbow Babies & Children’s Hospital, back when Willie cleaned rooms there.

“He’s not like a pest,” says Chriss Slabaugh, whose baby daughter was admitted to that unit days after she was born.

“As far as him doing prayers in the room, that was … only when he felt like the family wanted them.

“When she was passing away, going through those last hours, we called and told him, and he came,” Slabaugh says.

“And then we asked him to be at the funeral. And he was.”

On that freezing winter day, Pham drove 50 miles from Cleveland to Wellington, Ohio, and read a letter from Chriss and Delila Slabaugh about their baby girl. Then he led the graveside service.

“I guess he’s just a good friend of ours now,” Chriss Slabaugh says.

A good friend is what Pham is to hundreds of people who’ve spent time in that place between life and death.

Years later, they talk about how he still calls and sends Christmas cards or letters.

When Jared Ellsworth died at age 12, his mother asked Pham to speak at the funeral.

“It just wouldn’t have been right not to have Willie,” Kathy Ellsworth says. “You can’t help but feel peace when you’re around him.”

What brought her that peace, she says, was watching the gentle love that developed between Willie and Jared.

“I don’t know if I was strong enough to teach my son about life and death,” she says. “God sent Willie to us to do that. I don’t think he’s human. I think he’s an angel.”

Pham has little to say about all this. He’s embarrassed by the attention.

“This is what I’m supposed to do,” he says in his quiet way, never mentioning that he’s head of deacons at Zion Chapel Missionary Baptist Church in Cleveland; that he studied at night for more than four years at the Baptist Bible Institute, earning a master Bible diploma in 2003; that he spends his spare time visiting nursing homes and taking Communion to the homebound; that his back aches nearly every day; that he usually skips lunch at work to pray with patients who have gotten well enough to move to the hospitals’ other wings.

“I have an opportunity to be of help,” Willie says. “That’s all it’s about.”

Published in Life, Volunteer
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