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Hospitals install fonts for baptisms

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PIKEVILLE, Ky. — Hospitals in the religiously conservative South are doing more to fill a special request that for some critically ill patients takes on the urgency of a lifesaving procedure — total immersion baptisms.

Some hospitals have built special tubs called baptistries that are large enough to fully immerse patients whose denominations don't allow sprinkling. Other hospitals simply set aside bathtubs for the ritual.

"It's a comfort to the family members and to the patient to know they can have this baptism done before any surgeries or before any complications that they fear might arise," said the Rev. Mark Walz, chaplain of Pikeville Methodist Hospital, which recently installed two baptistries.

Walz said the baptistries became necessary because many of the people the hospital serves recognize only one form of the Christian purification — full immersion.

Doris Gillman, 76, holds to that doctrine. Now suffering from lung cancer and too weak to talk, she was baptized Wednesday in the Pikeville hospital by being lowered on bed sheets into the water.

"Her face just lit up after she was baptized. She raised her arm like she was praising the Lord," her daughter, Esther Gibson, said.

Baptizing critically ill patients is a delicate process, especially when they are hooked to feeding tubes and catheters. The Rev. Tommy England of the Pikeville Freewill Baptist Church said the medical staff at the hospital helps when the patients are extremely weak.

"A lot of people have strong enough convictions that they want to be baptized no matter what," he said. "I'd never advise anyone that they shouldn't be baptized."

Before the hospital built its baptistries, Walz said ministers from such denominations as Southern Baptist and Church of Christ often filled bathtubs with water in order to perform the ritual.

That still is done in many hospitals that don't have baptistries.

"We improvise any way we can to serve the spiritual health of our patients," said Jim Ivey, chaplain at Baptist Hospital East in Louisville. "We have used whirlpools. There have been times when we have just had to pour water over the patients the best we can because some patients, because of their conditions, you can't immerse them in water."

Joel Green, dean of the school of theology at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, said he considers the trend good for medical care.

"It suggests something about dealing with people as whole persons, not just as bodies over here and souls over there," he said. "It places an emphasis on the health of the whole person."

Furman Hewitt, director of the Baptist House at Duke Divinity School in Durham, N.C., said hospital baptistries are an interesting twist to the push in the medical field to deal with the total person — physical, mental and spiritual.

"For people who believe full immersion is important, the hospital is providing a great service," Hewitt said. "It's symbolically important because immersion under water symbolizes the death, burial and resurrection. It symbolizes our hope that we shall be raised to newness of life."