Two chaplains, two hospitals, one home

They call it “creating a life of love by design.” Two IU Health chaplains met on the job and are now married and the parents of a three-year-old son.

The hospital room was packed as Staci Striegel-Stikeleather recently officiated the wedding of a patient. It was a final wish. The ceremony was not at all out of the ordinary for Striegel-Stikeleather. She and her husband Donald Stikeleather – both reverends – see their roles at IU Health as providing companionship for patients and meeting them where they are.

“I think I want to be present and listen to what people are really going through and come along side them,” said Staci. “I count on witnessing suffering. The idea that if you witness suffering, you witness healing,” said Donald.

Staci spends her time at IU Health University Hospital; Donald spends his time at Methodist Hospital. Staci is part of the hospital’s palliative care team. Their roles take them to the bedside to minister to patients and families and can include baptisms, weddings, new blessings and final blessings. Staci has performed two bedside weddings and Donald performed one in a hospital chapel for a woman who was preparing to deliver her first child.

Staci joined the team at IU Health eight years ago. A native of New Albany, Ind. she attended Marian University where she studied pastoral leadership. After completing her graduate degree at Catholic Theological Union she began her chaplain residency at IU Health.

Donald grew up in a suburb of Cincinnati, Ohio and attended Purdue University with a degree in theater. He obtained a Master of Fine Arts with a focus on dance and performed for many years before going into seminary.

“They say you have six dances in you. I had done all six dances as a choreographer and was ready to try something new,” said Donald. It was when he spent time at the bedside of a dying friend that he felt a calling to ministry.

“There was a period of discernment and then I began clinical pastoral education. I was always encouraged to be me. So when I started at Purdue I was planning on a career in engineering but I ended up putting on tap shoes and hanging out at the theater,” said Donald.

His second career as a chaplain with IU Health gives him a chance to embrace the unique characteristics of each patient.

“I think it’s important to focus on what gives meaning to someone – whether it’s nature, music, or a collection of stones – and let something grow out of where they live as opposed to bringing something to them,” said Donald. His career at IU Health also introduced him to the woman who would become his wife. They met at University Hospital during a shift change. Donald was handing off a pager to a chaplain that Staci was shadowing. They became fast friends and their relationship grew from there.

“He was wearing a bow tie and I said ‘I want to be his friend,’” said Staci. They were married five years ago on June 14, 2014 in an outdoor ceremony at a local bed and breakfast. Staci wore a white dress and Donald wore Kurta-Asian formal attire. Among the 85 guests were a number of pastors.

“I have a relative who said that when we asked how many chaplains were in attendance there was a breeze as all the hands went up,” said Staci. “One of the most moving experiences in our ceremony was when we knelt on a quilt made by Donald’s grandmother and the audience came and prayed over us.”

The couple know the importance of those sacred moments and the impact those memories have on their patients and families. Donald is ordained by Dharma Ocean Foundation and Staci is ordained through the Federation of Christian Ministries. Their approach to patient care is not so much faith-based, as it is life experiences.

“In my role with palliative care, I follow patients for a lengthy time. There was one cystic fibrosis patient who was so sweet and when she was hospitalized a couple hours away from her family I spent a lot of time with her and it felt like sacred time,” said Stacy. “She would always say, ‘I love you,’ and we talked a lot about how she wanted a child, how she was scared that her life was short and even things like if she could take an oxygen tank to a Lady Gaga concert. It was about someone sharing their heart with me and that is special.”

Donald remembers an especially impactful time that he spent with a patient who declined surgery based on her cultural beliefs. “She was embraced by the unit staff and was strong enough to return home to her country. It was a special time to be part of that person’s life and honor their decision,” said Donald. “The best part of my job is being able to be with people who are alone and need companioning – to make a difference and reframing someone’s strength. I think I’m willing and curious to hear about an individual’s journey, and I don’t expect it to be cookie cutter. I had a patient who said he was a Jedi Knight and I said, ‘OK.’”

And when they go home to their three-year-old son, Sutton, the couple unwinds by spending mealtime as a family. They ground themselves working in the yard and have created an inter-religious grotto of meaningful religious symbols.

“I think I always knew I’d do something in ministry,” said Staci. “And I don’t know if I could be married to someone who is not a chaplain. It’s such an emotional and spiritual thing – a way of communicating and connecting emotionally.”

— By T.J. Banes, Journalist, IU Health.
Reach Banes via email