After 45 Years, Danny Cavett Retires as Director of Pastoral Care at OU Health

For 45 years, Danny Cavett has been a compassionate and supportive presence for hospital patients and their families, helping them navigate difficult circumstances and create meaning from situations that seemed to have none. This month, Cavett officially retires as Director of Pastoral Care for OU Health, where his work as a chaplain has touched an untold number of people.

“I’m going to miss being there every day, but I will stay connected,” Cavett said. “It’s been my life and has helped me feel fulfilled. I love having relationships with families.”

Cavett is retiring from a program that he has significantly strengthened. The pastoral care department now has a staff of eight chaplains and two administrative assistants, along with several other chaplains who fill in as needed. They cover OU Health University of Oklahoma Medical Center, Oklahoma Children’s Hospital OU Health, and OU Health Edmond Medical Center. Cavett also directed OU Health’s nationally certified Clinical Pastoral Education Program, which has four full-time chaplain residents in training.

Their work is often demanding. Last year, there were 6,500 trauma cases at OU Health’s Level 1 Trauma Center; someone from Cavett’s team was present for each one, keeping families updated and comforted. They also respond to all heart attacks and strokes that occur within the hospital, as well as every death. They help families find funeral homes, facilitate autopsies with pathologists, obtain signatures for death certificates, and more. In addition, they aim to visit every new patient within 24 hours of admission.

“We do that to the tune of about 95%. I’m proud of that,” Cavett said. “We know that if a person receives a visit from pastoral care, even if it’s to say, ‘We’re here if you need us,’ then studies show that patient satisfaction goes up quite a bit.”

Although patients may receive visits from their own clergy, the work of a chaplain is a bit different, Cavett said. Chaplains talk about the patient’s medical problems, ask what kind of help they may need, and work with the patient to move toward goals or find meaning in what they’re experiencing. They do so by honoring the patient’s own ideas about spirituality. “Our calling is to work with the patient’s own background instead of me placing my spirituality on them,” Cavett said. “We want to take their story and help them grow with it.”

Cavett and his fellow chaplains have faced additional challenges during the time of COVID-19. When the surge of cases has been at its highest, no family members could come into the hospital; instead, Cavett and his team would go find the patient’s family in their car to deliver news. If a patient was near death, one or two family members could go to the bedside.

“Danny’s dedication to our health system and the patients we serve has been invaluable,” said Jon Hayes, President of Oklahoma Children’s Hospital OU Health. “He has been a kind and comforting presence for our patients as well as our healthcare providers and staff. As we have faced tremendous challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic, Danny’s wisdom and compassion have never been more important. It is hard to imagine OU Health without Danny, but he has made us all better at what we do because of the example he has set.”

Since he began his career, Cavett has experienced substantial change in the medical profession and the evolution of hospital facilities. He began working as a chaplain in 1977 at Oklahoma Children’s Memorial Hospital, which was then located in Bielstein Center near the intersection of 13th Street and Stonewall Avenue. Soon, the hospital expanded with the construction of Garrison Tower, which now connects to the original Bielstein building.

When he started, the hospital had room for about 50 children who were in wards instead of private rooms. Cavett saw each patient or family three times a day, and quickly became known at the hospital. Unfortunately, he also conducted many funerals for children who could not be cured by medical treatments available at the time. As medicine advanced, life expectancy lengthened, and Cavett noticed a related phenomenon among young patients.

“It was wonderful that children began living longer, but we were still treating kids like they were going to die,” he said. “Everything was centered around them, and that gave some kids a victim mentality. I decided that we needed to start a camp to teach kids how to cope with their illnesses — to be a thriver and embrace their story.”

That was the genesis of Cavett Kids, a calling that has run in parallel to Cavett’s career as a chaplain. The first camp he organized was for children with kidney disease; it’s still going strong 44 years later. In 1997, Cavett Kids Foundation became a nonprofit organization, and today it offers seven camps and numerous other programs free of charge for children with chronic and life-threatening illness.

“I remember that first year, we connected all the kids because they didn’t know each other,” he said. “I still do all the teaching at the camps about not being a victim. Our motto is that the illness does not define the child. They get to have fun with other kids who have the same medical condition, and they learn what it means to be a thriver.”

Cavett’s career also has been shaped by communal tragedies. In 1995, when a bomb exploded at the Alfred P. Murrah Building in downtown Oklahoma City, he had just walked into Children’s Hospital. He never went to the bombing site because the need was so great at the hospital.

“We set up a place for the parents who were waiting to hear about their kids (who were in a daycare in the building), and we went into the ER and tried to match kids with their parents,” Cavett said. “By noon that day, it was pretty clear that there would not be many more children who survived. The parents kept coming back to me asking if there was any news. And there wasn’t. That still really haunts me. It’s a memory I have to deal with.”

In the aftermath of the bombing, Cavett helped start a support group for families who lost children. He also helped colleagues in psychiatry conduct research on the prevalence of post-traumatic stress disorder among survivors. Because of his experience with that tragedy, he was called upon to help after planes hit the World Trade Center towers on Sept. 11, 2001. He was assigned to the New York City Fire Department’s medical clinic, where he talked with each firefighter who came in, listened to their experiences, and recommended mental health services if needed. He also traveled to individual fire departments to further visit with firefighters who were working at the site.

Throughout his career, Cavett has given his expertise to two other important entities in the healthcare profession: the Medical Ethics Committee at OU Health and the Institutional Review Board (IRB) of the OU Health Sciences Center. Medical Ethics Committee members are on call to provide consultations anytime a healthcare provider, patient or family member has a concern about a treatment regimen. They thoroughly look at each case and make recommendations to physicians overseeing care. As an IRB member, Cavett is part of the group that reviews and monitors research involving human participants. He plans to continue serving on the oncology IRB in his retirement.

Although he is ready to step back from many of his duties, Cavett said he will stay connected to OU Health through committee work and filling in as a chaplain when needed. His decades of experience will no doubt continue influencing others as well.

“I try to teach people about how to handle the stories we see and hear because compassion fatigue, burnout and moral distress are very real,” he said. “Some stories are very dear, so I keep them in my emotional bag around my shoulders. But if I keep every story in that bag, it becomes too heavy to carry. Some stories I have learned to put on a shelf where I can retrieve them if I need to.

“During my career, I’ve seen a progression of myself becoming less stoic and more willing to show my feelings. I still remember a young girl at one of my early camps who loved to play golf. She got to play golf during the camp, and the next week she died. That’s very dear to my heart. The tears come a lot quicker now. I used to hide them, but now I don’t.”