NEW PORT RICHEY
The feisty Italian woman in her 80s had but days to live. At the Gulfside Regional Hospice, she turned to Chaplain Andy Anderson. She called him her tall Jewish priest.
They had forged an easy friendship, said hospice nurse Holly Boulware. Anderson relied on music to comfort so many, and this was no exception. The woman got all dressed up and fixed her hair because Andy would be playing guitar and singing Italian songs he had just learned.
"She wanted him to sing Patsy Cline's Crazy at her funeral,'' Boulware recalled.
So he did.
Another patient played the banjo, and as sick as he was, the two would often jam together.
"It just made them forget their illness," Boulware said. "Music just brings so much out of people. He just brings that gift to his patients as well as providing spiritual comfort.
"He's the best chaplain I've ever worked with."
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Andy Anderson, a longtime pastor and counselor, is in his fifth year as chaplain at Gulfside. He calls himself "God's representative, standing in the gap, ministering whatever needs to be done to bring comfort to the patient and their families."
Sometimes it's just listening, or carefully selecting the right words of comfort and support, which seem to come naturally for Anderson, 59.
He plays the guitar and sings when it's appropriate, makes subtle jokes, or simply offers a quiet hand to hold.
"I come not representing any church or religion," he said. "I help them find some peace even if they don't have a defined belief system."
He tries to see where they are in their spiritual life and "how to draw that out so that whatever spirituality they practice is a resource for comfort and strength."
Although many are religious, some are not at all.
Even self-declared atheists will begin asking questions as they approach the end of their lives. They ask him about faith, and heaven, and the afterlife. "As they bring it up I have the opportunity to share from my background. I don't push any beliefs on anyone," he said.
"Spirituality is finding purpose and meaning in life. When someone is dying, many times they look over their lives and what they've accomplished and may have some regrets, some unresolved relational issues." He helps them find and identify those things, the unfinished business, so they can die peacefully, he said.
He's there as they reminisce and tell their stories, look over their joys and losses and how they've handled them. Where they are today and how they can find meaning and purpose as they're going through declining health and approaching death.
"I believe everybody's life story is sacred."
When it's appropriate, he plays whatever music they like, and learns new songs if he doesn't already know them. Southern gospel, pop, oldies, ballads.
"There's something about music that touches their spirit, their soul. Brings them back to happier times in their lives … especially dementia patients," he said. "I have some very awesome moments with my patients and my families."
Anderson found his calling 25 years ago, and he's been cultivating it ever since. He recently finished a doctorate in Christian counseling from Pillsbury Seminary in St. Louis, with a focus on how cancer affects patients and survivors.
Anderson grew up Baptist and always wanted to help people. After graduating from Florida State University with a major in leisure services, he was serving part-time at a church in Fort Lauderdale teaching Bible study to kids and loved it. They asked him to come on board as the youth minister, which he gladly accepted. "I felt I had the gifts and abilities to relate to people," he said. "I felt the call to study to be a chaplain."
He took the next step, heading to Texas to receive his ordination. Later, while interning in Texas, he had to substitute in the pulpit when the minister was sick, and he realized he had the ability to lead services.
He served at churches in North Carolina and spent 12 years as minister for First Baptist Church in New Port Richey.
Then his mother got ALS and was in the care of Woodside Hospice, and "I saw the wonderful work that hospice does," he said.
Around the same time, a church member shared information about the chaplaincy program at hospice and the effect he could have. People seemed to come into his life, helping him direct the focus of his mission. "It was a progressive journey," he said.
He worked as a clinical pastor at Tampa General and Morton Plant hospitals before hospice.
He is certified in death and grief therapy as well as marriage and family therapy. He is available independently on the weekends and in the evenings, he said, if people in the community or at local churches need counseling.
Stan Kissler, a fellow pastor and counselor, met Anderson two decades ago. He recently retired after 40 years as a minister, the past 17 at the First Baptist Church in Hudson.
"I would often call on Andy to take my place teaching and preaching," he said. "He has a positive impact on everybody that he wants to minister to. He's top drawer. He's No. 1 with me."
Joseph Glazebrook and Anderson work together as chaplains at hospice. "He can go into just about any situation," he said. "It's a very stressful job for everyone. … We can get into some very tough situations with patients and families. Andy has always been able to perform extremely well as a chaplain."
He even helps lift the spirits of the staff, he said, changing the lyrics to popular songs to fit the occasion, or the person. One recent morning during the staff lineup, he serenaded the social workers with his version of Surfer Girl by the Beach Boys that had everyone laughing. Recently he did a twist on We are the Champions, changing it to We are the Chaplains as a salute to the work they do.
Anderson also serves as a chaplain for hospice's three bereavement camps at Lakewood Retreat in Brooksville. The camps have adopted one of his songs, Rhythm of the Spirit, as their theme song.
Sonia Quinones, hospice's director of bereavement and volunteers, runs the camp programs. "I think he's an integral part of the camps that we run and he contributes greatly. He sings, plays music and provides words of comfort. He's a comforting presence."
Robert Brooks met him 10 years ago when Anderson was teaching a course at Trinity College. He invited Brooks, who had recently retired from a career as an executive in the health care industry, to come to his church. Brooks later became associate pastor there, and went on to serve as a volunteer chaplain at North Bay Hospital.
"He recruited me and we've been friends ever since," Brooks said.
"He's just a good guy with a good heart. The ability to help (patients) get through this stage of their life is not a job for the average person," he said. "It's a unique individual that has compassion and is willing to help people during the most difficult times. His personal compassion allows him to do what a lot of other people couldn't do."
Anderson has been married for 36 years to Marianne, a retired teacher. They have two daughters and just welcomed their first grandchild.
"I just want to continue to grow as a person," Anderson said. "With a deeper understanding of how to listen to people, know what they're going through and how I can be effective."