Sallie Vandervort is a cancer survivor.
Her faith, she said, carried her through her illness. "I know how much I depended on my faith and the church to get me through that time," she said.
Now Vandervort is helping others who are gravely ill.
She is one of five people completing an extensive program that brings theological students and ministers into supervised encounters with people in the final stages of illness.
It's called Clinical Pastoral Education. Locally, it's offered through Hospice of the Florida Suncoast in Largo.
Through intense involvement with people in need and the feedback from peers and teachers, students develop a new awareness of themselves and of the needs of those to whom they minister.
For six months, the students devote 12 hours a week to the course. They spend four hours conducting in-depth discussions and eight hours participating in hands-on clinical experience.
Vandervort, 48, is a member of St. Paul United Methodist Church in Largo and plans this summer to enter a seminary.
"Through the CPE (Clinical Pastoral Education) process, I've learned a lot about how best to minister," said Vandervort, a former marketing and advertising executive. "Just being there is very important."
Owen Henry, 50, is an associate minister at St. John Missionary Baptist Church in Clearwater. When his stepmother was dying last year, he said he wondered whether his quiet visits with her were enough.
"I didn't know I was doing the right thing, (just) providing presence," he said.
Henry said he knows that, in his work as a minister, he can't answer everyone's questions, especially those of parishioners who are dying or watching a loved one suffer with an illness. His struggle eventually led him to the CPE program.
The course not only serves patients' needs but also provides students with valuable lessons, said Kurt McPherson, a chaplain for the hospice's two residential centers.
"They ask themselves, "What can I do for the patient and what can I learn from this?,' " he said.
For some students, it means learning to tolerate a patient's faith.
"That's part of the learning process" for the students, McPherson said. "We're there to meet (patients) where they are. Our goal is not to evangelize anybody, but there are times when people ask for that."
The program's clinical experience involves ministering to patients at hospice facilities, nursing homes and hospitals. Each week at Hospice House Woodside in Pinellas Park, they take turns sharing a detailed report of a visit with a patient.
"I probably think this is one of the most important things we do," said Wayne Maberry, a chaplain at Tampa General Hospital, one of 350 sites in the country that facilitate the program, based in Decatur, Ga.
"We're really trying to minister to patients not as an event, but as a process from living to dying," Maberry said.
This week, it was Jean McGevna's turn. McGevna, 51, discovered the CPE program while volunteering for the hospice. She now wants to be a chaplain.
On Monday, she read to the CPE group a nearly verbatim account of her experience with an 85-year-old woman who was dying of breast cancer.
Using a fictitious name for the patient, McGevna read from a typed script. The students analyzed the visit, giving suggestions or asking questions. They agreed the woman needed to talk about abandonment, guilt and possibly the fear of dying.
Bob Martin, 73, a retired Presbyterian minister who volunteers as a chaplain for the hospice and is a CPE participant, suggested McGevna get closer to the patient so she could open up to her. "Make the whole experience for both of you a little more dynamic," he said.
Dr. Mike Milliar, 50, a Baptist preacher and a professor at St. Petersburg Theological Seminary, wondered what kind of spiritual care McGevna offered the woman.
McGevna explained that her elderly patient welcomed her company and found comfort in having someone to talk to. "The spiritual care came in the presence _ my presence," she said.
To learn more about the Clinical Pastoral Education program, call Dan McRight at Tampa General Hospital, 251-7063, or Kurt McPherson at Hospice of the Florida Suncoast, 586-4432. The course is $400.