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Irene Aiko Miyamoto, Pediatric Chaplain

  • By Amy Waddell, Reed Hutchinson
  • Published Jan 1, 2004 8:00 AM

Imagine dealing with critically ill children in the pediatric intensive care unit—children who may suffer from cancer, neurological diseases, or major trauma. The children, their families and even their caregivers ride an emotional roller coaster as they struggle with hopes and fears.

Helping the children, families and staff cope is the role of Irene Aiko Miyamoto, an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), who recently became the first full-time staff pediatric chaplain at UCLA’s Mattel Children’s Hospital. Miyamoto focuses not on religion but on spirituality —defined as what gives meaning to a person's life. Her role is to listen, to help the person express their feelings and fears, to assure them of God's love, to bring hope, and to perform prayers, blessings and baptisms.

Miyamoto makes more than 100 visits per month to the sickest children. She also gives lectures to interns, residents and new nurses on the role of spiritual care, emphasizing what is unique about dealing with children and their various developmental stages. In addition, Miyamoto helps during disaster crises such as the Santa Monica Farmer's market crash in July 2003, when several pediatric patients were brought to the emergency room at UCLA.

Born in Nagoya, Japan, Miyamoto was raised traditionally as a Buddhist, not as a Christian. She was working in international marketing when she decided she needed a change. “I was in a major transition of my life, going through divorce,” she says. “I needed to start my new life in a new environment.”

California seemed a logical place in which to settle, since she had visited the state many times. When she arrived in Los Angeles in 1996 to pursue a master’s degree in communications, a friend invited her to attend the Harvest Crusade evangelistic event in Anaheim. “I was touched by the message about forgiveness and new life,” Miyamoto says. “I didn’t become Christian right away, but started to seek God then.”

Later that year she entered the seminary and began volunteering at hospitals, including interning as a chaplain at Childrens Hospital Los Angeles. Miyamoto entered UCLA’s yearlong residency program as a clinical pastoral education student and recently assumed her current position.

One of her greatest challenges is helping families and staff when a child dies. To help her get through tough emotional times, Miyamoto keeps a poster in her office with the lyrics to an inspirational song called “To Where You Are.” Whenever a child dies, she fills in the space around the lyrics with the child’s name, the dates of birth and death, and a special memory about him or her.

Many may wonder how she is emotionally able to handle working with sick and dying children every day, but Miyamoto said she finds a deeper meaning in her work.

“It is a privilege for me to walk with these kids and their families during their last weeks of life,” she says. “It is an honor to witness how much these children are loved by their parents and to see how beautiful they are. It is truly a learning experience.”

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