Imparting Calm Palm to Palm, Heart to Heart

Times Staff Writer

In a bare corner on the fifth floor of St. John's Health Center in Santa Monica, Sister Marlene Panko calms the nerves of some of the hospital's most distressed souls -- its employees.

Using a weekly, one-on-one prayer meeting, the 62-year-old nun and chaplain gives doctors, nurses, office staff and the occasional patient a jolt of faith to help them through a week often marked by stress, illness and despair.

The program, called Heart and Hands, features an alarmingly simple process with huge returns.

First, Panko erects a folding screen near the end of a hallway for the sake of privacy. In front of it is a table with cookies, a portable stereo playing soft, soothing music and herbal teas with names such as Tension Tamer, Worry Free Tea and Calming. This is California, after all, and even the most devout Catholics can benefit from a little New Age.

On the other side of the screen are two chairs and a table pressed up against a windowsill, above which sunlight pours in, an almost heavenly sight for those ready to share their deepest anxieties.

After sitting down, Panko squeezes a dollop of moisturizing cream on her hands and reaches out to massage the hands of the person before her, a technique she learned from a nurse at the hospital who is a certified massage therapist.

Working over their palms and through their fingers, she instills a sense of relaxation. It's then that she asks, "Is there anything in particular you would like to pray for today?"

In most cases, people ask God to look over their children. Others request financial stability, a more profound spirituality or a fast recovery for their patients.

"They get so relaxed with the hand massage and feel like they are in a trusted environment, so a lot of pent-up emotions pour out of their hearts," said the gentle Panko.

While holding each other's hands, they offer prayers up to God.

Panko then asks the person to reach into a vase filled with colored glass in stone shapes. Each piece has a message on it such as "Be Brave" and "Count Your Blessings" written in felt-tipped marker and sealed with lacquer. Some people dig deep into the stones, hoping to find the words that inspire them the most.

"I got a good one!" announced Shelly Pearlman as she emerged from behind the screen recently, clutching a pebble that read "Serenity." The registered nurse is Jewish, but rarely misses a chance to sit with Panko. They have the same God, she explains.

"I get a lot out of it," said Pearlman, 50. "I get focused, and I'm reminded why I came into nursing in the first place: to help people in their most difficult time of life and give strength."

She said she'll reach into her pocket several times a day and squeeze her stone to "remind me I'm not alone."

The session, which lasts three to five minutes, ends with a hug. Many leave the hallway beaming, while others are teary, touched by Panko's grace and the deeply personal matters they prayed about together.

"I do not come as someone who can solve problems," the sister said, "but I see myself as one who can encourage others to deal with issues that weigh heavy on their hearts.... It's amazing to watch employees answer their own questions and, in speaking it, find direction and confidence to follow that inner voice that so wants their peace and happiness."

Tina Nate, an employee charged with monitoring patients' diets, said her faith was tested when her beloved grandmother died three years ago. The tragedy devastated her family and rocked relationships.

"One week, I wasn't believing" in God, Nate said. "I picked a stone and it said, 'Believe.' I keep them all. I have them lined up in my bathroom."

Nate, who will soon mark her second year at St. John's, also attended special half-hour counseling sessions with Panko. She said the nun's guidance restored her confidence in herself and God. The 33-year-old recently attained a long-time goal: a driver's license.

"She remembers everything you tell her," Nate said. "You're not just another person coming through."

Panko sees eight to 15 people a session for Heart and Hands, a service she has provided for three years. The idea came to her after she kept asking doctors and nurses if patients and their families needed a chaplain, and they responded, "No, but we do." Not only does she offer the aid on the hospital floors, but she also visits business offices in a building across the road.

It seemed a natural thing to do, said Panko, a member of the School Sisters of Notre Dame, whose emphasis is on education. Born in Chicago and having lived throughout the Midwest, she likes to say she's had several careers already. They include: teacher, school administrator, vocation director, vicar in a Wisconsin diocese, and spiritual leader for nuns. She found her calling to work in health care while at the bedside of sickly sisters.

"They confided so much in me, their deepest thoughts and fears," Panko said. "I knew something was resonating with me."

After taking her first chaplain position at St. Mary's Hospital in Grand Junction, Colo., she longed to be in a big city again.

So six years ago she took the job in Santa Monica -- not a moment too soon, according to Isabel Cruz Valenzuela, a Heart and Hands devotee who works in outpatient registration and often talks to Panko about her 9- and 14-year-old children.

"As a mother, I'm doing the best I can, and she knows it," Cruz Valenzuela said. "I know God is speaking through her."

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