The child’s face was so badly burned that only her eyes were distinguishable.
Or, was it his eyes?
Fred Caldwell still isn’t sure if the patient he saw was a girl or boy when he unintentionally peered into a room in the burn unit at an Atlanta children’s hospital after visiting a relative.
“I was horrified; I couldn’t get out of there fast enough,” says Caldwell, a Wolfson Children’s Hospital pediatric chaplain.
Although he doesn’t know what became of the tiny patient, the shocking encounter two decades ago made a lasting impact on his career path.
In his first seminary school pastoral care class about five years later, Caldwell’s professor challenged his students to pursue the most difficult ministerial position they could imagine.
All Caldwell could think about was the child in the Atlanta burn unit.
“I had to be honest. I had to face my fears,” he said.
So, reluctantly, he began visiting pediatric care intensive care and trauma units.
“I was horrified all over again at first, but as it turns out, I was very drawn to it, and … I was placed in a burn unit, which actually turned out to be wonderful,” he said.
A Monticello, Ga., native, Caldwell toiled in commercial construction sales and as an insurance adjuster after studying human services at nearby Macon’s Mercer University.
Then, he acquiesced to his calling, although his sights initially were set on becoming a counselor.
Caldwell received a Master of Divinity from Methodist Theological College in Ohio and has worked at Wolfson since completing his residency at the hospital.
Wolfson’s four pediatric chaplains are tasked with providing spiritual, religious and emotional support to patients, families and staff. Caldwell is ssigned to the pediatric and cardiovascular intensive care units and the children’s emergency room. He often begins supporting families of young cardiac patients before the children are born.
“People usually find that out (about unborn children’s heart defects) when they go to find out what gender their child is, and it becomes a much larger visit,” he said. “Me getting involved so early gives them a face that they can identify with throughout the entire process.”
Caldwell has a go-to message upon meeting Wolfson families.
“I always remind them that they are not doing this alone and that they have whatever support they are going to need …” he said. “There is a lot of support. When I tell them that, I really mean it.”
Caldwell is ordained at First Christian Church in Mandarin, but he hasn’t regularly preached since attending the seminary. Wolfson’s Pastoral Care Department ministers from a multi-faith perspective.
“We have respect for differing views, but we also realize what our limits are,” he says. “We have clergy from all walks of life in our city that we and reach out to.”
As Caldwell assumed on Day One, his profession is a tough gig. Heartache abounds.
He says his pastoral career’s roughest patch may have been several years ago when four children whose families he counseled died within 24 hours.
Or perhaps it was when the hospital treated four victims of severe child abuse at once.
Or a couple of summers ago when three infants — two who were waiting for new hearts – unexpectedly died.
“It can be exhausting. Really, really hard,” he says.
Caldwell finds his own comfort in gardening, fishing, swimming taking long walks on the beach and enjoying his family. He and his wife, Lori, have three daughters: Sarah, 17; Katie, 14; and Mary, 12.
The Caldwells especially like to visit family and friends in Monticello.
“Being in the middle of nowhere, away from it all, is great for all of us,” he said.
Caldwell says there is joy on the job, too. He particularly enjoys performing wedding ceremonies for Wolfson staff members.
“Enjoying my coworkers in that setting is a lot of fun,” he said.
Christmas cards help, too.
He receives pictures each holiday season from the first family he counseled; the 4-year-old heart patient is now 14.
“Being able to watch the children grow and overcome their issues is very, very rewarding,” he said. “Most of the patients do just fine.”