Standing on a little stool by a hospitalized patient’s head, Margery Link was only in the third grade when she began what would become a lifelong career in counseling others.
“Lord only knows what I said, but I would try to cheer them up,” Link said of her chats with the infirm during her weekend visits to the hospital with her father and sister when her mother was sick with polio.
Even as a little kid, Link felt such a desire to make people happy, as her “heart was always bent” toward helping people in need or in pain, whether emotional, spiritual or psychological.
Now, as the lead chaplain at Henry Mayo Newhall Hospital prepares to retire after nearly 30 years, Link said she feels blessed she was able to follow what she felt was her true calling.
Finding that calling to help others
When in college, Link began her career as a chaplain in Los Angeles County’s juvenile halls for girls.
While it was a challenging position, Link said she loved the opportunity to share hope with the youth.
After eight years, Link was appointed to the California women’s parole board and began seeing some of those same girls she’d counseled years ago, now in prison.
Link stuck with it for some time, determined to make a difference, until the winter of 1991, when a thought came to her.
“What do you really want to do?” she recalled asking herself.
“I’d never even thought about it,” she admitted.
It was then that she realized her desire to be a hospital chaplain, and by January 1992, she’d begun working at Henry Mayo, training under Chaplain Neil Kamp, who’d been there since the inception of the hospital.
Creating her own guidebook
Link started on a Monday and by that Thursday, she was sent in to help deal with a crisis.
“I was just thrown out there, but it was good because I learned that’s what you are, is thrown out there, and you don’t ever have any idea what you’re going to be facing that day,” Link said.
Link learned early on there was no textbook or guidebook that would give her the right answers in terms of dealing with crises, realizing that whether responding to a trauma, an emergency code, death or terminal diagnosis, each situation would be unique.
It’s been seeing how different cultures react to trauma and grief that has been eye-opening for Link, who said she’s learned that regardless of their culture, language, faith or walk of life, what’s most important is being compassionate.
“You always feel like you’ve got to say these profound things, but you don’t — you just love them where they are and accept them,” Link added. “A lot of chaplaincy is listening and just being there for the patients and letting them know that somebody is there for them.”
While those qualities might be the foundation for chaplaincy, a chaplain’s duties consist of much more than the typically thought of hand-holding or counseling that chaplains are often tasked with.
“As a chaplain, you have to be quick on your feet to evaluate what is really the most important need,” Link said, adding that those needs often include finding clergy of various faiths or languages, making contact with relatives of the ill or deceased, and educating families on funeral or palliative care processes, among others.
Chaplains also don’t just work with patients and their families but also with the hospital staff and first responders, as well as the clergy, counseling each on how to best handle the trauma, along with their own feelings toward the situation.
Growing the hospital chaplaincy program
Link took over the program at Henry Mayo when her predecessor left in 1995, and while she was assisted by volunteers from time to time, Link become the hospital’s go-to chaplain, on-call 24/7.
But as the hospital continued to expand over the years, so did Link’s workload, and soon, she found it was too big of a task for just one person.
It’s now been nearly a decade since the hospital expanded the chaplaincy program, which consists of two full-time and four part-time chaplains, all of whom share the duties.
Since then, the chaplain program has also worked to expand its reach, implementing new programs to meet the community’s needs.
Among those programs is a clergy breakfast that Roger Seaver, president and CEO of Henry Mayo, suggested years ago as a way to bring members of various faiths together.
“I asked Marge many years ago to reach out to the many faith leaders in the Santa Clarita Valley to begin a regular opportunity for our hospital to receive the benefits of the input from this diverse source of leadership and care in our valley,” Seaver said.
While Link said she recalls balking at the idea, as she was familiar with the challenges that could come with bringing such a diverse group together, she took on the task and created what would become the clergy breakfast.
The breakfast has since cultivated relationships and connections between clergy of various faiths, as well as disseminated valuable information to them, as each meeting features a discussion on various medical topics, such as dealing with traumatic grief, palliative care or pain management, for example.
“While Margery hesitated at the request momentarily, she took on the development of the link to our faith leaders, and we as a hospital family have always benefitted by their input and supported our health care mission,” Seaver added.
Tackling the pandemic’s immense challenges
While Link was faced with numerous challenges in her 30 years at Henry Mayo, the COVID-19 pandemic was among the worst, as she and her fellow chaplains worked to do whatever they could to continue to serve the community.
When unable to visit patients in person, Link said chaplains and clergy would make phone calls, speaking with them or praying over them, even though they were sometimes unconscious.
“The first person that I called, I don’t know what I thought that COVID was going to jump through the phone… I was a nervous wreck. It was crazy,” Link recalled.
As the pandemic evolved, chaplains worked long hours to sit with those they could — often the only ones able to be at patients’ bedsides — and to speak to those they could not, including with families who were unable to visit.
And when a surge in COVID-19 brought with it many deaths, chaplains were left to counsel grieving families over the loss of their loved ones.
“At first, it was just such extreme sadness that their loved one died and they weren’t there for them, and then it took a turn to anger,” Link said, adding that out of hundreds of calls, only a handful hung up the phone. “It was amazing how many people were willing to let me talk to them.”
Sharing her gifts with the community
As Link looks back on her career as she prepares to retire, she said it’s been both rewarding and a blessing to be able to not only help others but also to assist her fellow chaplains in doing the same.
“I feel like I’ve been gifted with learning so much over the years, I’ve wanted to impart that to other people,” Link said, adding that she’s looking forward to seeing how the hospital’s chaplain program continues to evolve. “I’m excited for what’s in store for the hospital.”
Seaver, who has worked with Link through his 20 years at the hospital, said she’s created a legacy the hospital hopes to retain, cherish and continue.
“It is my pleasure to acknowledge and thank Margery Link for her personal mission and her extraordinary ministry in the Santa Clarita Valley,” Seaver said, describing Link as a prayer warrior, who’s “always praying for support and wisdom to seek positive resolutions within our challenges in service.”
“I feel I have been blessed by her steadfast support to the patients, our staff, our medical staff and our volunteers,” Seaver added.
And though she is officially retiring, Link said that helping others is ingrained in her and she knows she will continue to do so in some capacity — just as she’s done ever since the third grade.