Healing Spirit

updated 05/15/1995 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/15/1995 AT 01:00 AM EDT

FROM THE MOMENT HE AWOKE ON April 19, Danny Cavett knew it would be a rough day. Chaplain of Oklahoma City's Children's Hospital, he was battling stage-four lymphoma and had reached the most enervating point in his chemotherapy cycle. But Cavett, 46, had no time to contemplate his own troubles until he arrived home that night, bone weary and dehydrated. When his daughter Tonya called to ask how he was, he says, "That's when it finally hit me. I couldn't answer for several seconds. Then the tears came."

They were tears, however, not for himself but for the grieving families to whom he had ministered throughout the day—parents and friends crowding the hospital corridors or waiting grimly outside his office for word of dear ones trapped in the wreckage of the federal building. "It is their faces that I'll never forget," says Cavett, an ordained minister of the Christian Church and, for almost 20 years, director of chaplain services for Oklahoma City's two university hospitals. "So much frustration and fear. There was an incredible numbness that set in. It is the toughest thing I've ever been through."

In the weeks since the explosion, Cavett has refused to let his illness slow him down. Although he was diagnosed in December after discovering lumps on his shoulder, he has maintained a full schedule. "Interacting with people is what Danny's life is all about," says his wife, Jeanie, 48, director of the University Hospital Medical Library and mother of their children Tonya, 21, and Mark, 23.

Though Cavett did not tell the families he was helping about his cancer, it soon became apparent. "When most of us first met," he says, "I still had some hair. But because it was falling out from the chemo, I shaved my head. Some people did a double take." Yet the realization that their minister was coping with a crisis of his own drew them closer. "With Danny you'll never see self-pity. His empathy for the suffering of others has been inspirational," says Dr. Morris Gessouroun of Children's Hospital. Since going public with his own illness, notes Cavett, "I've gotten quite a few hugs."

He has also been giving them. Still, Cavett knows that while some people are comforted by a simple embrace, others need conversation or prayer. "One of the difficulties," he explains, "is that these people are strangers. So you deal with instinct, watch their body language. The one truism is that no one likes to be alone. So you just let them know you're there."

There is just one thing that Cavett will not do. "I don't offer any pat answers," he says. "The most-asked question on April 19 was 'Why?' and all I could say was that I didn't know."

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