Published August 18, 2005
At about 6 a.m. on Monday, Aug. 15, at Saint Joseph’s Hospital a man shot and killed his wife, who was a patient in an intensive care unit, and then turned his gun on himself and committed suicide, prompting a swift medical and pastoral crisis response by the Catholic health-care institution.
Fulton County Police Department public affairs officer Major Sue Miller said that Donald Shields of Lawrenceville, 71, fatally shot himself and his 70-year-old wife, Beverly, who had been admitted to the hospital on Aug. 3 for heart-related problems.
Greg Pocock, a Catholic on duty as the overnight chaplain at the time, arrived a couple of minutes after hospital staff discovered what had happened in the private ICU room of the victim, as the patient crisis code was given. He joined an emergency room physician and attending nurses there and helped with the unsuccessful attempts made immediately following the shootings to resuscitate both the man and his wife.
The chaplain praised the calm strength of all those who immediately responded. “In spite of the horridness of what occurred, everything that could have been done was done to revive the patient and the husband. The hospital in every way fulfilled its functions beautifully, the medical examiners and police department, the detectives,” said the chaplain, who has worked there since 1998 and is a member of St. Jude the Apostle Church. “The hospital is operating as it would any other day, just operating a little sadder. At least people know—every one of them has treated this family with so much grace and honor. I hope I’ll never have to see them do it again, but I was so impressed with how all of us here came around to support the family in their time of crisis … I couldn’t be prouder of the people I worked with today.”
Saint Joseph’s, located on Peachtree Dunwoody Road, was founded in 1880 by four Sisters of Mercy from Savannah and is Atlanta’s oldest and only faith-based hospital, committed to providing both clinically excellent and compassionate care. It issued a statement later in the morning. “Saint Joseph’s is currently working with law enforcement officials as they conduct their investigation to determine the exact circumstances of the events. The incident was isolated to the patient’s room. No other patients, visitors or employees were injured in the occurrence. The hospital is secure and currently open and operating under normal conditions. Saint Joseph’s pastoral care department, staff psychologists and employee assistance personnel are counseling family members and employees. At the request of the family, Saint Joseph’s is not releasing any additional information. Saint Joseph’s expresses its sincere condolences to the family.”
Later the hospital issued a joint statement with the Shields family regarding the tragedy. “Ms. Shields was recovering in Saint Joseph’s Hospital cardiovascular intensive care unit where she was slowly improving. She was not in a persistent vegetative state at the time of her death. Ms. Shield’s family was actively engaged and consulted throughout her hospitalization at Saint Joseph’s and was aware of her progress. On behalf of the family and friends, we ask that you respect their privacy during this difficult time.”
Major Miller said that Mr. Shields did not threaten anyone. “There really wasn’t anything he did to draw attention to what his intentions were,” she said, adding that “they were the only ones in the room and witnesses are being interviewed about what they heard and saw.”
Chaplain Pocock was particularly impressed with the compassionate response of the nurses to the emergency. With “the staff, the nurses, the word heroine doesn’t even come close to what they tried to do for these two people, and they are as devastated as anyone could be because they cared so much for these patients.”
He and chaplain Michael Bryant had both worked closely with the family in providing pastoral care. He ministered more to Mr. Shields and was shocked by the incident as Mr. Shields, a Christian, was deeply devoted to his wife and had stayed close to her bedside. Pocock was the one who called family members to notify them of the deaths.
“I’ve never had a darker moment. It was very difficult,” he said. The husband “showed nothing but care and concern every moment I was with him. Other than that, he came to a moment where his vision of his future with her was something that he couldn’t embrace and support… All I know is this lady was like air to him and his devotion was very palpable, but there are a lot of emotions from absolute grief to anger and everything in between.”
He added that the husband was a familiar face around the hospital and that it would not have been surprising to have him there at 6 a.m. when morning visiting hours begin. The hospital does not have metal detectors.
Sister Valentina Sheridan, RSM, the director of the Pastoral Care Department, said that the chaplains had been working with the whole family including out-of-town family members who had visited there last week. The Pastoral Care Department has 10 staff chaplains, one of whom each new patient has an opportunity to speak with, and a department member is always available to provide emotional and spiritual support as needed to patients and their families, regardless of faith background. They also provide support as needed to the hospital staff, and Mass is offered on Monday through Friday in the chapel, and Sundays in the auditorium.
“It’s just a terrible shock to all of them. We will be working with the family for the arrangements that will be made,” said the Sister of Mercy. “From the time the wife came into the hospital (Pocock and Bryant) have been working very closely with the family. We have been present to them and comforting to them. They have been most appreciative of the care they have received…The family (has) asked the two chaplains Greg Pocock and Mike Bryant to assist with the memorial service.”