Their combined effect is dazzling, but the crosses are more than just decoration. They are donations made in memory and in honor of those who have passed through the clinic.
“We treat our patients over a long period of time, decades sometimes, so we grow very close with them and their families. Sometimes they come back to visit long after we’ve concluded treatment,” said Dr. Lyndon Perkins, who has served at NMMC for the past 25 years alongside his nurse, Melanie Stevens.
According to Perkins, the illnesses the clinic diagnosis deal with lung problems such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lung cancer, sleep apnea and asthma. For victims, breathing feels like inhaling through a thick damp cloth on a humid day. There are lingering symptoms that take their toll sometimes over years.
“We had a young man walk through and he looked at the crosses and said, ‘Man, y’all lose a lot of patients,’” Perkins said. “But for us they don’t represent death. They remind us of the special bonds we’ve made in our time here.”
Each cross is unique to the individual it commemorates, each one the key to a story. One is western-themed, complete with saddle and a horseshoe, while another comes all the way from Russia. Some are even hand-made.
“I remember we had a muscular dystrophy patient who was an avid [Mississippi State University] fan,” Stevens said. “When he died in his mid-40s, we found an MSU cross for him. It helps show people they are still a part of us and helps us remember.”
The cross that started it all, though, was hung by the clinic’s office manager Dee Dee Bates, in honor of her mother, Joan Mason, who died as a long-term patient in the pulmonary unit. After also losing her father to cancer, Bates knows as well as anyone what receiving a worse-case scenario feels like.
“When my father was diagnosed, I remember the doctor bowed his head and prayed with my father, and that struck me,” she said. “Our practice is a ministry of caring, and the crosses speak to the nature of that.”
To date, the clinic walls hold over 350 crosses, so many clinic staffers keep a catalog to direct people who come in looking for their family member’s cross. For the staff, they are representative of their desire to provide total care and support for their patients, in Stevens’ words “show them the love of Christ.”
“We don’t preach,” Stevens said. “Sometimes a patient pours their heart out and I don’t know what to say. I just offer to pray with them.”
Bates said she feels the same.
“Only through God can we deal with the tragedies and continue to be the hands and feet of Christ,” she said.
Bates and Stevens said they feel blessed to work with people who fit into how they care for their patients. As hiring manager, Bates said she is particular about the people she brings onto the staff, making sure they have the values and priorities needed to treat the last patient of the day with just as much compassion as the first patient.
“The physicians are the backbone. Their faith carries over to the staff, and people coming to interview know beforehand what they are walking into,” she said.
As a relatively new addition to the staff, Vickie Cheney can testify to the unique atmosphere of the clinic.
“When I came for my interview five years ago, I saw the crosses and was overwhelmed,” she said. “I knew I was right where I needed to be.”
As she grew into her new job, she noticed the crosses gave serenity and comfort to patients, especially new ones who didn’t know what to expect.
The clinic hosts nine pulmonologists like Dr. Perkins, and when possible, the patients’ crosses are hung in their doctor’s section of the clinic.
“It helps remember just small moments with people,” Cheney said.
From a ministry standpoint, the crosses offer a conversation piece and minimize the impersonal feel of a doctor’s office.
“When people come in, they say they don’t feel like they are in a doctor’s office,” Cheney said. “The crosses are a huge conversation piece that opens the door for other issues.”
The sense of community even extends to patient-to-patient relationships.
“One of our patients was Jewish and we had the hardest time finding a Star of David,” Bates said. “But finally another patient found one on a trip to Texas and brought it back.”
So many personalities can be felt through the crosses. Stevens said they provide her staff with an unspoken sort of relief.
“They make us feel so good,” she said. “We’re proud of them, proud of all the stories.”