By Sarah Carlson, Arts Editor
Editor’s note: Ruthie Jones Harvey is the aunt of author, Sarah Carlson, her father’s sister.
Standing in a hallway of Hendrick Medical Center, Ruthie Jones Harvey listened to a 32-year-old man reveal to her that his son was murdered.
He had just found out and was grasping at his words, relaying the details to Ruthie, class of 2005. Her mind reeled, trying to find the “right words” to say, but none came. All she could do was plead with God to fill her with strength as she prayed for the man.
Another evening, Ruthie, 51, found herself quietly singing “Amazing Grace” to a dying woman in a hospital bed when the woman’s own family was too overcome with grief to witness her death.
And when she was called to the deathbed of a woman exactly her age, she stood against a wall crying as she watched the woman’s husband and son say their goodbyes. They couldn’t bring themselves to leave the dead woman alone, so Ruthie stayed behind with the woman to ease the family’s burden of walking out of the hospital room door for the last time.
These stories are only a few of those that Ruthie can relay to those closest to her, while keeping patient confidentiality. They’re not odd occurrences or tragic happenings in her own life; they’re just part of a day at the office.
Ruthie, part-time chaplain at Hendrick, spends Thursday and Friday nights on call at the hospital working mainly what she calls “crisis ministry,” which is responding to urgent calls for patients brought into the trauma center or who have gone into cardiac arrest.
“When I get paged to come to the trauma center, I just whisper a prayer for strength to face whatever situation it is, as I hurry on my way to get there,” Ruthie said.
Ruthie’s nights vary from week to week. Sometimes, she will lose two or three patients in one night; other times, she won’t get any calls. The emotional toll can be heavy, but Ruthie’s strength comes from God and the long road she traveled to reach her current ministry.
A new beginning
Ruthie Carlson was raised in the small Oklahoma town of Duncan, where everybody knows everybody, and teenagers “drag the strip” around the local drive-through for fun on Saturday nights.
In 1972, she followed her older brother, Steve Carlson, class of 1974, to Abilene Christian College, where she relished her freedom and snuck out of Nelson Hall once or twice. Her first summer home, though, she met and instantly fell in love with Keith Jones. After transferring to Oklahoma University but not finishing a semester, the two married and soon began a family: Joshua, Nathan and Matthew Jones.
The next 30 years brought challenges along with blessings, including the sudden death of Ruthie’s father and her divorce from Jones. She moved to Austin, worked as a sales consultant and marketing specialist for the Austin American-Statesman and began getting involved in women’s ministry at a local church.
Teaching and spending time with women who had experienced the same struggles as her planted the seed in her heart to be involved in women’s ministry, Ruthie said.
“Being a single woman, I felt like if I wanted to be in the field of ministry, I needed a degree in ministry,” she said.
The only choice she felt she had was to head back to ACU, a home she had left 30 years earlier but one where she knew she would be able to find her way and dedicate her life to ministry.
“I came back to ACU because I had a real desire in my heart to be involved in ministry,” she said. “Because of a lot of things I had experienced in my life, I’d been through a really rough time. I’ve experienced a lot of loss and situations with real suffering, and I felt like I could help others through some of those same situations.”
She wasn’t sure what she would specifically do with a degree in ministry, but she decided to move back to Abilene to find out.
“I just knew my heart was in ministry, and I just felt like God would open the doors to lead me where I needed to go,” she said. “And he has.”
A non-traditional life
Life as a non-traditional student proved challenging at times. She worked full time as a customer service specialist at H-E-B to support herself. One of the more difficult parts of her studies proved to be remembering all that she had studied. Her mind wasn’t what it was when she was 18, so she had to study harder and longer than she had 30 years earlier. Having to study harder didn’t deter her from completing her applied studies degree in Christian ministry in three years.
“I had been out of school for 30 years and here I was sitting in class with kids that were the children of people I went to school with the first time back in 1972,” Ruthie said. “I loved going to school; I was very well received by kids who were regular college kids. They didn’t mind me being the old person in class sitting next to them.
“The BAS program for non-traditional students at ACU is phenomenal. I have so much respect for the program, the directors and all the staff involved to help make the transition a smooth one for students returning to get their education at an older age.”
During her years as a student, Ruthie spent Thanksgiving 2002 at the Salvation Army. As she stirred a batch of instant mashed potatoes in a huge vat, she began talking with the man next to her, Charles Harvey. The two immediately felt a connection and later were married in September 2004 by Ruthie’s brother, Steve.
“My coming back to school as a non-traditional student has been one of the greatest blessings of my life, not only education-wise, but it’s opened so many doors to beautiful relationships; it’s opened doors for opportunities to serve – it’s like I’m experiencing a brand new life again,” she said. “I didn’t come to college first and then go get life experiences; I got a whole life full of experiences and then came to college. So meshing the two and seeing college through eyes of experience was seeing it in a very sweet way and a very appreciative way.”
Adding Harvey to her name and completing her final hours of schoolwork, Ruthie walked across the Commencement stage in May, on what she calls one of the happiest days of her life.
“Having all my family there, having my parents there, and my three grown sons who already had their college degrees, and to be escorted by one of them – It was a day that I had really worked hard for and a day that I really never dreamed would happen,” Ruthie said.
A new ministry
Through her time at ACU, Ruthie’s work in women’s ministry developed, both in church and community settings.
“I continue to work in women’s ministry because I feel there are many needs women have that fall through the cracks,” she said. “If I can help give a voice to a woman in need, I certainly want to help do that.”
During her junior year, her eyes were opened to another form of ministry when she was accepted into Lifeline Chaplaincy’s summer program as an intern. She was assigned to M.D. Anderson Cancer Center as a chaplain intern, and her life was forever changed. Through her experience, Ruthie said she learned what it meant to be a vessel for God to use.
“Never knowing what scenario would be happening behind a closed hospital door, my walk of faith became deeper and stronger than ever before in my life,” Ruthie said.
“Walking the halls during the days and answering the sadder calls at night when the cancer battles were over, cemented in my heart that I could encourage those who are sick and comfort those who are left behind to grieve.”
Last spring, as Ruthie was finishing her last semester at ACU, she was contacted by Bruce Lampert, director of pastoral care at Hendrick Medical Center and offered the role of part-time chaplain, working two nights a week, mainly in crisis ministry. She joined the team of three full-time and nine part-time chaplains in Hendrick’s pastoral care department as the only female chaplain on staff.
“It’s great to have Ruthie,” said David Mickey, chaplain at Hendrick and class of 1958. “She’s an excellent chaplain, as well as just a good friend and a good person.”
Mickey isn’t able to spend much time with her because Ruthie comes on staff at 4 p.m., when Mickey is leaving for the day, but the reports he has received about her have all been positive.
“I feel Ruthie is very qualified to do chaplaincy work,” he said.
Mickey has been a chaplain at Hendrick for eight years with two of those years spent in hospice care. He’s spent his entire life in ministry and missions and returned to Abilene with his wife 13 years ago to take care of their ailing mothers.
He said he too was looking for a way to minister when the opportunity for the chaplaincy arose.
“I just enjoy the opportunity to be a blessing to people who are in need of spiritual encouragement, or prayer or scripture,” Mickey said. “In the hospital setting, people are very much aware of physical needs, but there are spiritual needs as well.”
Both Mickey and Ruthie call Hendrick a “praying hospital,” where doctors, nurses and staff are comfortable praying with their patients and discussing spiritual issues.
“One of the blessings about Hendrick hospital is that there’s a definite emphasis on Christian ministry,” Mickey said.
One evening, Ruthie’s pager kept going off after she was already with the patient she had been called for. Because the staff member who had called for a chaplain hadn’t seen a male chaplain arrive, they assumed the chaplain wasn’t there yet.
“It didn’t hurt my feelings at all,” Ruthie said. “People just aren’t used to seeing a female in this position as much as a male.
“I get very positive feedback about [Hendrick] having a female chaplain on staff. I think chaplaincy work is a terrific place for a female in ministry. Being a chaplain is the job I have loved the most in my life, and I feel very honored to serve God in this special way.”
Wearing a white nurse’s jacket and a nametag, Ruthie makes her rounds throughout Hendrick, calling on patients and visiting with friends she has made among her coworkers. She doesn’t normally carry her Bible with her, finding that during the most tragic of moments, reading a scripture is not always the most suitable option. What her patients need beyond anything, she said, is her presence.
Ruthie said what is most important to her is to be the person of encouragement in a patient’s or a family’s most tragic times, what she calls “frozen moments.”
“I know when I was going through a lot of situations, whether it was losing someone that I loved, or through the tragic situation of divorce that our whole family went through, there were other people that God placed around me through those times that helped me get through those times,” she said.
“As the years passed, I felt deep inside me I wanted to be one of those people that could help others get through crisis situations as well.”
Ruthie said she has learned through working in crisis situations that even when she tries to help others, blessings always come back to her.
“I’m the one who receives the blessing in being able to be there and step into those lives for a very intimate time and share really deep emotions with complete strangers sometimes,” she said. “It kind of links our hearts forever in those frozen moments-those moments in time that you’ll always remember.
“I know when my own father died, I remember exactly what people said and that’s been 20 years ago. I just hope the things I might say to people can be an encouragement that they might remember in the years to come. I want to be that person for them that can lift their hearts out of their grief for that moment.”