Patients enter the hospital for specific medical reasons that require a physician's care, but they also come with their own unique set of personal needs that have an impact on their care and recovery. Hospital chaplains can play a key role in addressing these needs and providing another dimension of care for patients and their families.
"I see my role as being a bridge of spiritual support for the patient and family," said the Rev. Rodney Franklin, D. Min., staff chaplain at UAB. "They can be unfamiliar with the system, and they are overwhelmed. They are often anxious and bring personal issues with them in addition to their medical diagnosis. We provide spiritual support to help calm them and focus on why they are there. We can help them get through the maze as they seek to come out whole."
Many patients have resources they may not be aware of. The Rev. Sonya Gravlee, M.Div., chaplain at Ascension St. Vincent's East, said, "Our charge is to offer support to patients who are sick, but to also help them draw on the spiritual or emotional resources they already have so their healing is not just physical, but also emotional and spiritual. We can initiate relationships of care and help identify support in and out of the hospital.
"Sometimes we talk to patients about grief. In my experience, many people with chronic conditions also have grief they have been carrying for a long time, and they may feel guilty about still carrying that. That's just one more thing that affects their physical health because they may not have ever processed it. I call it making space for grief or making friends with it, because it really never goes away."
Chaplains are often called in after a family has had a 'goals of care' conversation with the doctor, when the outcome will lead to death. "We assist patients when doctors have done all they can. We support them during this sacred time by accompanying them and their families until they have taken their last breath," Franklin said. Chaplains can also help facilitate getting advanced directives/living wills and identifying patient advocates when needed.
While the chaplains may pray with patients and provide a Bible or Koran or other religious literature upon request, they do not proselytize or evangelize. "It's important to be mindful of the patient and meet them at their point of need," Franklin said. "Each patient is different."
Gravlee agreed. "It takes a lot of listening to determine what is going to help them," she said.
While it may be the patient who requests a visit from the chaplain, sometimes a physician will make the request. Ryan Humphreys, MD, an emergency physician at Ascension St. Vincent's East, makes those requests fairly often.
"The chaplains offer an extension of what I do," he said. "I can give pills and do procedures, but at the end of the day, human beings have souls. The guy who trained me said once, 'there are very few sacred moments in life. In those moments, everything has to stop.' I can address the medical side of it, but in those sacred moments, what's needed is someone to comfort a soul that is being crushed. I take that to heart, and in moments like that, I call them in. I take care of people, not body parts, so I get a chaplain involved."
While the chaplains seek to provide comfort and counsel for patients, they also want hospital staff to know they are available for people who work at the hospital as well.
"With COVID, we are now spending a lot of time with people who work here," Gravlee said. "The trauma has affected all of us. People are doing the best they can, but the best they can do now is not necessarily the best they could do two years ago. If I think of myself as a pastor, my parish is the people who work here. If I build my relationships with them, they involve me more in caring for their patients. It's doctors and nurses, but also people who clean the hospital and serve in the cafeteria as well as administrators."
"I have always been available to hospital staff, but because of COVID, I'm now more intentional about checking on them," Franklin said. "They have to deal with the heaviness of patients who come in and don't have a positive outcome. I affirm to the staff that they are doing a great job. I also encourage them to take time to refuel themselves."
Humphreys has an open relationship with the chaplain in the Emergency Department, and in January 2021, he asked for more involvement with his staff from the Spiritual Care Department. "I told her my people are hurting and demoralized," he said. "We are all going to have some element of traumatic stress. I asked her to come to the Emergency Department more often. Now she comes and talks with us. It's nice to have someone to have a conversation with. They are there to support us."
He encourages his colleagues in other hospitals to rely on their own chaplains when it's necessary. "There may be a fear that the chaplain will get into their business, but the chaplains I know are just there to support us. Don't be afraid to be bitten by some spiritual bug. They are just there to be human with you."