The popular and beloved Putney, who died Aug. 14, had served as a chaplain at UCLA's Oncology Center since 1998. He was also a faculty member at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and mentored medical students in the school's doctoring program, which teaches students how spirituality can improve patient care.
"When one encountered Rev. James Putney, you first received his smile, which emanated light, joy and acceptance," said the Rev. Sandee Yarlott, director of the spiritual care department at UCLA Medical Center. "With James, you felt met, deeply listened to and embraced by a special attentiveness. It was like you had been in the presence of divine love and compassion."
Putney's calling to spiritual care did not come easily. Standing just less than four feet tall due to Morquio's syndrome, a form of dwarfism that influences how bone develops, he endured 12 painful corrective surgeries by age 21, leaving him with a profound aversion to hospitals. When his older brother was killed in an accident when Putney was 18, he bottled up his feelings of grief, unable to deal with the family tragedy.
More than 26 years passed before Putney could bring himself to confront his brother's death. He then experienced a religious epiphany that brought him newfound inner strength. It wasn't long before Putney had completed theology training and started working in the ministry, helping to start several new churches.
But Putney wanted more. Additional training in clinical psychology, along with a growing interest in the mind-body connection, brought him back into the hospital environment, at UCLA Medical Center. He was known for using a technique known as "guided imagery" to help transport ill patients away from their pain and for writing poems about those he helped. In May 2007, Putney was named Healthcare Team Member of the Year at UCLA's annual nursing awards event.
"What I viewed as a deficit, I now see as a bridge to connecting with patients on a spiritual level," Putney said in an interview with UCLA Today in 1999. His compelling story was also the focus of several newspaper and magazine articles, as well as network and documentary programs.
Born in Portland, Maine, in 1951, Putney moved to Los Angeles in the early 1970s. He received his bachelor's degree in biblical studies from LIFE Bible College in Los Angeles and his master's degree in theology from Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena. He assisted in the building of three nondenominational Christian churches on Los Angeles' Westside between 1986 and 1992 and was ordained at Ocean View Community Church, where he served five years as assistant pastor.
Putney did his clinical pastoral education internship at Santa Monica–UCLA Medical Center from 1997 to 1998 and completed his residency at UCLA Medical Center in Westwood, with a focus on oncology. He was also a board-certified chaplain with the Association of Professional Chaplains.
Putney is survived by his wife of eight years, Lin Morel; his parents, Marie and Elbert Putney; his brother Richard David; his sister Ann Marie and her husband, Ross Saunders; two nieces; a nephew; several aunts; and numerous cousins.
"James will live on in the hearts of those he touched," his wife said. "He was truly a spiritual giant and an incredible example of a man who lived life to the fullest."
Putney's family and friends have created a multimedia Web site dedicated to his life and work at www.jamesputney.com. The site includes information about donations.
Memorial services will be held Saturday, Aug. 25, at 12:30 p.m. at Vineyard Christian Fellowship, 3838 S. Centinela Ave., Los Angeles 90066 and on Monday, Aug. 27, at 5:15 p.m. in the auditorium of the Resnick Neuropsychiatric Hospital at UCLA, Room C8-183, 760 Westwood Plaza, Los Angeles 90095.