Patients at Duke University Hospital sometimes misinterpret Omoviekovwa Nakireru’s starched black shirt and white clerical collar as portending bad news.
After 45 years as a Catholic priest – a vocation with an important role to play in the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick or Last Rites – Nakireru has learned to anticipate this association between his clothes and unwanted news. So when he walks into a patient’s room, he arrives with a sweet smile. He will ask how the patient is doing, then he will sit down and strike up a conversation.
Since joining Duke in 2013, Nakireru, the only Catholic priest at Duke University Hospital, has provided spiritual guidance and care to approximately 2,000 patients each year. Nakireru is there for the patients, no matter what time of day or night his pager rings. As one of eight Duke Chaplain Services chaplains who work on the medical campus, Nakireru and his colleagues play a vital role in patient care, healing emotional and spiritual wounds, while doctors and nurses focus on the repair of physical injuries.
“It’s well known that your mind controls the body, and if you’re feeling emotionally down, your body follows,” Nakireru said. “You have to uplift the person emotionally. Make them smile, make them laugh.
Nakireru grew up in Nigeria, where he entered the seminary at age 14. At 28, he completed his training and was ordained a Roman Catholic priest. Soon after, he moved to the United States to further his education, paving a path that took him to North Carolina and later to a job at Duke.
Although he has completed a Ph.D. in communications from Ohio University and began teaching at Fayetteville Methodist University in 1986, Nakireru felt called to his work as a priest. When he received a phone call from a Fort Bragg minister asking if he could volunteer four hours a week to meet with soldiers in his spare time, Nakireru couldn’t say no. A few years later, he transitioned to full-time chaplaincy, remaining at Fort Bragg for 18 years, then spending a year with the US Marine Corps at Cherry Point, North Carolina.
After working with the military, an opportunity as a chaplain at Duke led Nakireru to work with civilian patients. Using the tools at his disposal – inherited humor from his father, prayer, wisdom and a listening ear – Nakireru lives the call of his life at the intersection of meaningful interactions and often deep grief.
Although he has no bearing on a patient’s physical progress, Nakireru knows his value comes in helping patients and their families through the moment.
“Nobody likes being sick and nobody likes to stay in hospital even if they are sick,” Nakireru said. “But sometimes we can’t change that. We have to stay in the hospital. Being patient is a difficult adventure.
As the on-call chaplain for all Catholic patients admitted to Duke University Hospital, Nakireru watched dying patients breathe their last while he prayed for them. He provided spiritual guidance to many terminally ill young people, confessed a prisoner, and comforted countless families who had to say goodbye to loved ones, suddenly or at the end of a long health battle.
He also saw and experienced great joy as patients improved enough to leave the hospital to return home or celebrate the birth of a child.
His colleague David Hormenoo, Supervisor of Clinical Pastoral Education for Duke Chaplain Services, was impressed with Nakireru’s ability to approach each unique patient situation with kindness and authenticity. Nakireru wrote letters of recommendation for patients; helped them search for answers to difficult questions; and spent hours in deep conversations with people who later died.
“He’s an encouragement,” Hormenoo said. “He can walk with you and listen to your story and stay with you and offer the necessary guidance.”
As much as Nakireru serves patients, he also helps Catholic staff members. Before the pandemic, he held weekly Mass on Wednesdays on the first floor of the Duke Medical Pavilion, a half-hour service of encouragement for patients, family members and medical professionals. As part of this, Nakireru secured visits from two different bishops during his tenure at Duke.
Each week Diane Wright, Duke’s Infectious Diseases Clinical Research Coordinator, attended Mass and enjoyed how Nakireru weaved homilies with personal stories, humor and lessons, particularly around gratitude. and kindness.
“Masses were always brief because he knew people needed to get back to work, especially the staff,” Wright said. “But his homilies always have a personal message that accompanies the gospels we might take away.”
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