“Music Man” Chaplain Charles Heals Spirits

He who sings, prays twice.” The words of the ancient philosopher St. Augustine come to mind when Chaplain Charles Kibirige’s sings  to patients and visitors at St. Joseph Mercy Oakland.

Although music was a constant in his life growing up with his now deceased musician dad Henry Kasule, Chaplain Charles said his love of music flourished while he was in seminary. He attended Katigondo National Seminary and Ggaba National Seminary in Uganda where he completed degrees in philosophy and theology respectively.

Between 2001 and 2013, Chaplain Charles served the community of Ann Arbor as an ordained priest. In 2003 he was hired as one of the Priest Chaplains at St. Joseph Mercy Ann Arbor where served for 10 years and where he also started his career as a health care chaplain. After voluntarily leaving the active ministry, Chaplain Charles accepted his current role of full-time chaplain at St. Joseph Mercy Oakland in 2014.

“I never saw myself as an entertainer but rather as someone who wanted to use my gift of music to bring comfort and healing to others,” said Chaplain Charles.  “I’ve always wanted to bring music into my healing ministry. In fact, I have been, for some time now, using music as therapy when working with patients on the Behavioral Health Unit here at SJMO and it has been well received by both the patients and the staff on the unit. However, I knew I needed to extend this further into my ministry on other units.”

Chaplain Charles started to bring his guitar to the 2 p.m. prayer service he holds in the ICU waiting room. Although he doesn’t play every time, he uses it as a way to be present with people as well as to start a deeper conversation on their presenting health issues.

Chaplain Charles recalls one of these conversations with a young mother and her 4-year-old son who were visiting a family member. He played one of the theme songs from Disney’s The Mickey Mouse Clubhouse show. The little boy could not help but sing along with excitement. This moment opened the door to a deeper conversation with the boy’s mother and family. He prayed with the family. While walking back to his office, it struck Chaplain Charles deeply about how the Holy Spirit used a simple secular song to draw these people closer to God in a time they most needed it.

Chaplain Kibirige is known as the “music man” to patients.

Another striking example of the power of music happened this past July. A man he had never met before stopped Chaplain Charles during his rounds in the ICU.

“‘Are you Charles the music man,’ he asked me. ‘The nurse told us about you and how you play music for the patients. Would you be able to play a song for my wife?” Chaplain Charles recalled.

The man, Norm Kerr of Roseville, explained that his wife, Dianne, had suffered a stroke while at a family member’s high school graduation party in Waterford and was brought to St. Joe’s Oakland for treatment. Norm said Dianne loved the old country song from Charlie Pride, “There Goes My Everything” and asked Chaplain Charles if he could play it for his wife. Chaplain Charles agreed to look up the song and learn it.

“I went home that weekend, looked the song up, and put a little dose of my own creativity to the arrangement,” he said. “I went back the following Monday and played it for the patient. However, Norm was not present that day but his son made a recording of the presentation on his phone as I sang the song for Dianne. It was a day later that I got a call from Norm letting me know how beautiful it was and how meaningful it was to him and his wife and family.”

Chaplain Charles continued to see the family and play for them occasionally while they were in the hospital. Dianne’s condition improved from being unresponsive on their first encounter, to making nods and other nonverbal communications in the subsequent days and weeks. Eventually, Dianne was discharged and returned home to her family.

“I see in this whole experience, among other things, music’s ability to help inspire hope and healing in patients,”  he said.

Chaplain Charles and his guitar visit the ICU waiting room daily at 2 p.m. He also visits the Behavioral Medicine floor. 

Warmly Navigating through Mental Health Services

Navigator Pic
Kathy Walz (left), behavioral health services navigator at St. Joseph Mercy Chelsea, helps people  struggling with depression connect to counseling and other resources. In this photo, Kathy is with one of her valued partners, Laura Seyfried, director of the Manchester Community Resource Center.

CHELSEA —  “Ashley” had been struggling with depression for a long time.  Many people had suggested she seek help.  Ashley had collected brochures, business cards and lots of phone numbers.  She did not reach out to anyone.

One day, Ashley’s primary care physician referred her to Kathy Walz, LMSW, behavioral health services navigator at St. Joseph Mercy Chelsea.  True to form, Ashley did not call.  But three days later, Walz called Ashley.  Ashley met with Walz to talk about her options; they talked about how counseling could help and what it would be like for her.  Ashley went on to receive the mental health care she needed.  Months later, Walz asked Ashley why she finally decided to get care.  “Because you called me,” she replied.

A behavioral health navigator is a licensed behavioral health clinician who helps connect people with services that are specific to their needs.  Unlike a brochure or someone on the other end of a phone line, a navigator offers a “warm hand-off” for care, specific to the person’s needs and circumstances.  Often times the navigator can work with someone to move past the issues that are keeping them from getting the care they need.  The navigator’s services are free.

“St. Joseph Mercy Chelsea created a behavioral health services navigator position because we knew people were having a hard time accessing mental health resources and understanding what services were available.  We developed the navigator to be embedded in the community.  The navigator’s role is to connect people to what they need, based on their specific circumstances.  To my knowledge, this is a unique position – especially for people who are not our patients,” said Reiley Curran, manager of community health improvement at St. Joseph Mercy Chelsea.

The navigator collaborates with schools, primary care providers, and community-based organizations serving the poor.  The position was created to support people who are struggling with mental health issues.  This program is especially important for people who have a low income and live in rural areas.  Currently, Walz has more than 50 referral sources she can choose from when selecting the appropriate route for someone, including psychiatrists, support groups, therapists, psychiatric RNs and more.

“In our rural area, there were no counselors available for people with low incomes.  It is nice to have Kathy available, at our center, so we can make appointments for our clients to meet with her,” said Laura Seyfried, director of the Manchester Community Resource Center.

The Manchester Community Resource Center is one of many referring partner agencies who connect people with the navigator, Walz.  People in need can be referred to Walz by a primary care physician, a community-based organization, a church, a school, a family member; anyone who recognizes a need.  The service Walz is able to provide is warm, kind and personal; it is non-traditional.  Walz accommodates the person in need by meeting them in a coffee shop, a park, a library, one of her multiple community-based offices – any place that is easily accessible and safe.  Walz is mobile.  She is able to use offices in Chelsea and Dexter, a private space in a Stockbridge school, a little spot above a resale shop in Grass Lake and a private area in Manchester.

Unlike traditional programs, Walz creates her services around the very specific needs she sees.  “Each community can use me, as needed,” Walz said.  “For example, we recognized that seniors were feeling isolated.  So, we created a group just for them to get together.  We also saw that families of people struggling with mental illness needed support too, so we partnered with the  National Alliance on Mental illness of Washtenaw County to offer the Family to Family education series and a support group for family members.  The most important thing is for me to listen to what the community needs, and then give that service to them.”

“Having a navigator has helped because it brought counseling to our community in a non-threatening way.  It allowed our agency to serve as a bridge for our long-time clients to get introduced to counseling in a safe space.  It has opened doors for people who felt there wasn’t any help for them in our community,” said Seyfried.  Prior to having the navigator, Seyfried was only able to direct people back to their primary care physician for help.

On average, 80% of the people who met with the navigator went on to seek additional care.  The model of the behavioral health services navigator is currently being shared with other hospitals within Saint Joseph Mercy Health System to consider adopting.  “The success of the navigator is based on the collaboration of members in the clinical health community,” said Curran.