Healing the healer: Northwestern Medicine chaplain takes issue to heart

Minimally invasive valve replacement restores energy

Patricia Handley, chaplain at Northwestern Medicine Lake Forest Hospital, underwent a minimally invasive heart valve replacement last spring. Handley was discharged the next day and has spent the last several months rebuilding her strength and stamina by doing cardiac rehab several times a week at Northwestern Medicine Grayslake.

LAKE FOREST – It’s tough to keep up with chaplain Patricia Handley as she navigates the hallways of Northwestern Medicine Lake Forest Hospital keeping an eye out for anyone who might need a little support.

In between visiting patients who have requested a chaplain or are in need of palliative care, the spry 85-year-old is quick to ask a passing nurse about her son’s recent wedding and then reaches out to another staff member who just needed a hug.

This past spring, however, Handley found herself in need of some support. She was out of breath and slowing down. Testing revealed a previously repaired mitral valve was leaking.

“Pat is a huge part of what makes Lake Forest Hospital a special place. We lean on her a lot,” said Dr. Micah Eimer, cardiologist and associate chief medical officer at Northwestern Medicine. “She is usually sprinting around the hospital, but when she began huffing and puffing, I knew something wasn’t right.”

The mitral valve is one of the four valves in the heart that helps to control the flow of blood throughout the body. When the valve does not close completely, blood flows backward, making the heart work harder than it should.

“Pat had her mitral valve replaced 12 years ago and it would be risky to perform another open-heart surgery,” Eimer said. “Instead, she was a great candidate for a minimally invasive procedure to place a new valve inside the old one.”

Interventional cardiologists Charles Davidson and Laura Davidson performed the percutaneous valve replacement at Northwestern Memorial Hospital. The valve is compressed and advanced by a catheter through an artery in the leg until it reaches the diseased valve in the heart. A balloon on the catheter expands to secure the new valve in place taking over the job of regulating blood flow.

Handley was discharged the next day and has spent the past several months rebuilding her strength and stamina by doing cardiac rehab several times a week at Northwestern Medicine Grayslake. Now she is back up to well over 12,000 steps a day.

“I had no stamina and it was frustrating because I like to move fast,” Handley said. “Slowly and surely my energy came back and I felt like I found a lost part of me.”

While Handley doesn’t often refer to her personal life when providing emotional, spiritual and religious support to others, her recent experience as a patient has helped inform what she does as a chaplain.

“We are always learning from our experiences. Step out of the stream and back in the next day. You never step in the same place,” Handley said. “I have just a short time to build relationships with patients, but they can sense I have experienced a lot of life and that brings a credibility beyond words while also creating comfort.”

Handley is a former nurse with a background in pediatric, public health and psychiatric nursing. She raised three children and has nine grandchildren. Her faith journey led her to chaplaincy. She has a Master of Divinity degree from Yale and while in seminary felt a pull to the ordained ministry.

“I still remember the first patient during my internship. I pulled up a chair to listen and suddenly realized there was an internal tension I was enjoying,” Handley said. “The nurse in me was saying get busy, take a temperature. But I was just sitting and talking and doing what I could never really do as a nurse.”

Eimer said he understands that tension and that is why he admires Handley and sees her and all the chaplains as true partners.

“There is that moment in taking care of patients where I wish I could be like Pat,” Eimer said. “You have done everything you can in the physical world and you want to provide reassurance for the soul. That is what Pat does incredibly well. She is an inspiration.”

To learn more about Northwestern Medicine, visit nm.org.

Shaw Local News Network

Shaw Local News Network

Shaw Local News Network provides local news throughout northern Illinois