Sunday, July 09, 2006

A Chaplain's Observations

Being a chaplain is a calling, not unlike the priesthood or diaconate. No, you're not ordained in the terms that we normally associate with vocation. The ordination I speak of is that of experience, simple exhausting but rewarding experience. It is a trial by fire to see if you can take the odors of patient rooms, of aneseptic surfaces, of agonal breathing, of too quiet waiting rooms, of weeping parents or friends trying to understand the situation or the loss.

For me, the patient's room is sacred ground, a holy place where God is nearest and felt most clearly. It is where the patient has that little bit of control over what is happening to them. And it is the chaplain's place to ensure that tenuous bit of control no matter how short lived at that time. We ask if we may come in, we ask if we may stay awhile, if we can help in any way to make them more comfortable, we accept them no matter how they or things look. It is when we hold a trembling hand, or one gripped in pain, that we are doing our part. It is where we hear the life story, so the patient can be heard and perhaps reveal or come to terms with a wrong they have done to someone and aren't sure if they are forgiven. We contact anyone they give permission to contact on their behalf, for whatever reason.

We clear the room of assorted visitors so the patient can rest and sleep. We mediate disputes in waiting rooms and hallways, knowing that all of this is ultimately for the patient's benefit. It's not easy and things can get nasty. But they can also be a time of blessing and healing. And it is not unusual for us to comfort the medical staff. Often there is a patient whose life could be prolonged with some independance but the patient refuses treatment. It is the medical worker's goal to help life be sustained, and when circumstances go against everything they were trained to do, it can be difficult for them, as well as clinicians, or social workers.

It is a hard thing we do when trying to broach carefully and considerately the topic of organ donation when all hope of recovery is meted out and you have to talk to parents or children, or a partner that doing so would be the right thing, even when they can't see it, that their loved one would bring life to a stranger...usually a grateful stranger who has been waiting, their life on hold.
Or it is the patient in ICU who may never wake up from a head trauma, the surviving loved companion's life turned inside out by the careless or unanticipated act of another. No life will never be the same for the family of the injured or that of the one who perpetrated the act, intentionally or accidently. And it all happens in seconds.

Fear drives many to do things to ensure their own outcome. Whether it is a husband, wife, partner, parent or child--it doesn't matter. If they fear that their hospitalized loved one may not make it, they can be overcome by the fear of being alone the rest of their lives. So to prevent that from happening they might take their own life as a safety measure because they don't think they can go on without that person. The saddest part is when the patient makes it fine only to learn that the one they knew was waiting for them no longer waits in this life but the next. Not only are they immersed in physical pain but the heartbreak of their being alone now, awash with grief and guilt.

It is times such as these that a chaplain is there in that setting to listen, to hold, to take the verbal abuse meant for the one gone from their midst. And there is no time limit to the visit unless the patient imposes one. It is a ministry of listening for the most part. And after a while we hear the stories of that relationship, the good, the joyful, the sad, and the difficult. It honors the memory of the one no longer with us, it reaffirms our history to that person, and they live on.

We learn to celebrate those lives as well as the joyful occasions. You know, a successful operation, a cured cancer, a newborn child. We serve communion or Eucharist as needed, we baptized as requested using scallop shells for the holy water, and then we write in indelible marker the name of the baptized, the date and place and give it to the parents or the grown children as the case may be to remember and document the occasion. We anoint the sick and dying, we pray over them all and with those who love them. We also are there for non-Christian patients since it is not our mission to convert anyone to a particular faith of belief system. So whether the patient is Native American needing a smudging ceremony or an Indian patient needing an atmosphere in which to meditate, or a Jewish patient needing a rabbi or a kosher meal, we are there to facilitate the spiritual needs of that person, their family and occasionally the staff.

You can end up seeing 10 or 15 patients a day, if not more depending on the census that day. You are on the go, waiting for elevators or taking the stairwells. We, along with all who are the pulse of the medical center, hospital or transitional care unit, move in a synchrony, like red blood cells carrying life giving oxygen to its parts, as white corpuscles, warding off sickness and death, or at least trying to. It's never easy, whether you succeed or fail in your day, you are literally mentally, emotionally and physically exhausted by days end.

Who then cares for the chaplains? Where is their respite? It is in God, Healer, Life-giver, Mother. And where do we find Him? In other chaplains, our ministers and priests, our fellow parishioners, they restore us and renew us so we can do it again the next day.

Often we secret ourselves away in the chapel and weep for all we tried to do that day and give thanks for what we were able to accomplish. Or we sit in our car and wail our grief there, or once we are home, alone or in an unoccupied place or room, we lay face down on the floor and cry out to God, our shoes left at the door. We enter that holy place and give our offerings of pain to Him who suffered for us and understands beyond our own comprehension.

It is not an easy calling but a calling it is. If you think you have a gift for such ministry, consider volunteering at your local hospital. They usually have programs that train you on hospital policies and procedures, as well as time for mentoring and shadowing staff chaplains so you can see how the ministry is "done". Talk to your priest or pastor about pastoral care at your church or synagogue or mosque. Consider the Community of Hope at program for members of your congregation so they can learn to become lay chaplains. Locally both Providence Medford Medical Center and Rogue Valley Medical Center have lay chaplaincy training programs, usually offered once or twice a year for a modest fee to cover materials. You can find out more by visiting these links respectively: and . At the Asante site it will talk of volunteer opportunities and not pastoral care directly. Use the contact emails at the bottom of the page to obtain further information.

If you have general questions about hospital chaplaincy, just email me and I will try to answer your questions, or at least point you in the right direction.

Until then, be swift to love!



Morgan said...

Beautiful piece on chaplaincy work. Thank you for sharing this. I couldn't find anything about chaplaincy, however, when I used the link you provided. It led me to a social services organization in Wash., DC.

Catherine + said...

Hi Morgan and thank you for the link information. I have temporarily disabled teh DC link and I am trying to locate a general information link to the Community of Hope. Thankfully our parish participates in this program so maybe calling the church office for a contact would be easiest. In the meantime I am scouring cyberspace for said link.

Your kind words are appreciated.



Jan Elkins said...

Catherine: I would love more information both about the Community of Hope and lay chaplain training. I am new to Trinity...coming from the Roman Catholic tradition.

Jan Elkins said...

oops..I forgot to give my e-mail address: