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Obituaries

James Putney, 55; chaplain helped cancer patients

August 27, 2007|Jocelyn Y. Stewart | Times Staff Writer

The spiritual awakening that eventually led the Rev. James Putney into the ministry did not take away the physical pain he had endured all his life.

But with his faith restored, Putney came to understand suffering in a different way. What had wounded his life -- a birth defect that left him standing less than 4 feet tall -- now was useful. At UCLA's Medical Center, where Putney served as a chaplain, pain helped connect him with cancer patients who otherwise had only healthy caregivers.

"Then I walk in and obviously -- ha -- I have problems," Putney said in a 1999 Times article. "Here is someone who has felt pain. I think that helps."

Putney, who used his experiences with pain to aid in his spiritual care of cancer patients, died Aug. 14 at Brotman Medical Center in Culver City. He was 55. The cause of death was not known, said a UCLA spokeswoman.

"With James you felt met, deeply listened to and embraced by a special attentiveness," said the Rev. Sandee Yarlott, director of the spiritual care department at UCLA Medical Center. "It was like you had been in the presence of divine love and compassion."

Putney also was a faculty member at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, where he taught and mentored students in the role of spirituality in improving patient care. He said in a 1999 article for UCLA Today that he told students, "Please don't lose that passion for people."

Even as he dealt with his pain from chronic arthritis, Putney made rounds like a physician. A firm believer in the healing power of prayer and humor, he shared both with his patients. To help take his patients away from the stress of the hospital, he sometimes used guided imagery. With eyes closed, listening to Putney's voice creating the scene, patients traveled to a beach or a mountaintop -- and came back restored.

Sometimes patients just needed Putney to listen; they found comfort in knowing he understood.

"He was the real deal, the genuine article, a man well-acquainted with sorrow, but a man filled with the unspeakable joy of the Lord," said an anonymous posting on Putney's website. "Every day he was with us was a miracle. His whole life was a miracle."

Born Nov. 16, 1951, in Portland, Maine, Putney was diagnosed as a child with Morquio's syndrome, a form of dwarfism that affects bone development. Before age 21 he had 12 surgeries, as doctors broke and reset his legs trying to improve his gait. When he was 18, his older brother died in an accident.

In the early 1970s, hoping to find work in the theater, Putney moved to Los Angeles. When he was in his early 30s he had an epiphany. He earned a bachelor's degree in biblical studies from Life Bible College in San Dimas in 1991 and a master's degree in theology from Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena in 1996. For five years he was an assistant pastor at the now-defunct Ocean View Community Church, where he was ordained.

The decision to minister to the sick and dying in a hospital setting came later.

"It wasn't a burning bush or an audible voice," Putney said. "But it was a calling."

His presence helped countless patients deal with their treatment, understand how to live life fully and sometimes how to cope with impending death. Each time a patient of his died Putney, a poetry lover, added lines to a long poem he was writing, "Over a Thousand Petals." His patients, he said, taught him how to live.

"Some people travel the world to see gurus to learn the secrets of the world," Putney said. "I learn them every day from my patients."

Putney is survived by his wife, Lin Morel, of Los Angeles; his parents, Marie and Elbert Putney; a brother, a sister, two nieces, and a nephew, all of Saco, Maine.

A memorial service will be held at 5:15 p.m. today in the auditorium of the Resnick Neuropsychiatric Hospital at UCLA, Room C8-183, 760 Westwood Plaza, Los Angeles. Information about memorial donations may be found at www.jamesputney.com.

jocelyn.stewart@latimes.com

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