If you have been in the hospital for a medical procedure or extensive treatment, you know that there are many talented members on your medical team: surgeons, anesthesiologists, nurses, medical technicians, and orderlies. These dedicated professionals make sure: you are blissfully unconscious during the procedure, if necessary; your organs are fixed, replaced or examined with meticulous care and attention; the doctors have all the equipment and support they need to work their magic; your vital signs are frequently monitored (especially my pitifully low blood pressure!); and all equipment is sterilized before it is used on your body. As a bonus, I have had some of the most comforting and informative conversations with the medical staff before, after (and sometimes during) medical procedures. They make even the most intimidating procedures bearable.
But then you will have a period of recovery, sometimes lasting overnight or even longer, in the hospital. The nurses and doctors are still incredibly competent and professional. But the reality of the situation is your day in the operating room is over, and they have new patients to focus on. So other than periodic check ins with the surgeon, you’re basically left with someone peaking in periodically to take your vital signs, to deliver a meal, and to see how you are feeling.
It can get lonely, and while you usually have a television you can turn on, I have yet to find a television show that can take my mind away from the boredom of being held captive in a hospital bed until someone signs the discharge papers. Because you are surrounded by a gazillion monitors that are judging your every breath and move, it is easy to become a little anxious, a little focused on the gravity of your medical condition. So what do you do? Who can you talk with to allay your fears and anxieties?
This may be the time when a chaplain comes in handy. Yes, I said a chaplain. I have no ulterior motive here. I like having an interfaith society, one that benefits from the rich diversity of faith views that exist on this earth. I have no expectation or even desire that each and every person will accept my exact religious belief. My motive is purely to help someone through a critical juncture in life.
Just what is a chaplain? And despite my stated lack of evangelical motive, you are wondering: How can a chaplain be of use if the patient is not of the same religious faith as the chaplain, or if the patient happens to be an atheist? It helps to examine the definition of the word chaplain in order to answer all of these questions.
The Cambridge English Dictionary defines chaplain as: an official who is responsible for the religious needs of an organization. That doesn’t feel quite right, so let’s try look to another source. The Merriam Webster Dictionary says: a clergyman officially attached to a branch of the military, to an institution or to a family or court. Well, we’re getting closer but I still think we can do better.
Vocabulary.com says: “You can use the word chaplain to describe the minister who counsels patients at your local hospital.” This is the definition that I think works best for the purposes of the chaplain at the hospital. Why? Because from what I have read, heard and experienced myself, the hospital chaplain is there to counsel and/or minister and/or provide emotional support to patients who may be challenged by a medical crisis. This is a more active, supportive role than just being “attached” to a hospital, but this role does not entail recruiting a patient to a particular religious point of view.
In fact, for this to work, it is important that there clearly is no bias on the part of the chaplain. He or she is just there to minister and listen to people who have been placed in the hospital. Why – because the hospital in and of itself is a place of intimidating medical procedures. This is a place that is unavoidably outside the comfort zones of almost every patient I know. So this is exactly why the comfort and perspective of a chaplain is sorely needed.
I found a very interesting article on the website for the National Association of Catholic Chaplains. The article was written by Joan E. Carlson and was titled: Do You Want to See the Chaplain? Ensuring a patient’s right to pastoral care and spiritual service.” There were a number of anecdotes that showed the extremely positive interaction between a chaplain and a patient. The patient admitted that if he or she had been asked a question about wanting to see the chaplain when admitted, he or she would have said no. Fortunately, the question was not asked of the patients interviewed for the article.
Why? In one instance, the patient was an atheist, and so he would have rejected the offer for a chaplain had the question been asked. But when the chaplain stopped by the patient’s room after surgery, the patient admitted to the chaplain that he was an atheist. But he also said that he could sure use support. It appears that the thing that caused the patient to continue the conversation with the chaplain was that the chaplain did not ask why the patient did not believe in God. The chaplain just sat down and listened. The support the chaplain provided during several visits with the patient and his wife helped them begin to manage through a very hard time.
Another patient who talked with the chaplain admitted that she would have said no to the chaplain question if it had been asked at admission. Why? She did not want to bother the chaplain because she was not at death’s door. But the chaplain helped her achieve an estrangement with a family member, a person who could provide much needed support of at this critical time in the patient’s life. What a gift the chaplain delivered to these two family members.
In another instance, the patient and his daughter would have said no to the chaplain question if it had been asked because he came in with what seemed to be a minor illness. However, the diagnosis identified a very serious illness, and the chaplain was there to help the patient and his family work through some overwhelming issues of anger and helplessness.
I have a friend who is a ministerial intern. As part of the final phase of her studies, she performed a chaplaincy at a hospital. What she told me about her experience echoes some of what is contained in the article. She would go into a patient’s room and introduce herself as the chaplain. Patients would initially decline her services because she was probably too busy. Her response was always something like, no, literally I have nothing else to do this afternoon but to visit with patients like you.
I think this was a great gift to each patient she encountered. Why? I think there is a measure of humility (maybe even etiquette) that comes out when you are a patient in the hospital. I think it is human nature to think that our needs are not as important as the next person’s needs. Additionally, I think there is the very human response to not want to tempt fate. If we just lay back and adopt an unassuming posture, perhaps our illness will remain minor and we will get out of the hospital quickly. No one wants to think about what might happen if we have a serious medical issue.
But no matter how hard you try, when you’re in a building devoted to illness, and a building where death sometimes visits, it is hard to escape scary thoughts. So think about how nice it can be in the midst of all the chaos and bustle to find someone who is focusing on you and your emotional state exclusively for a lengthy period of time – not just focusing on you while they took your blood pressure or gave you your meds! This exclusive and compassionate attention is the one thing you might actually miss when you are discharged from the hospital. So my recommendation is to take advantage of a trained professional who can help infuse stability and tranquility into your psyche while you have the opportunity.
I recall that when I had the defibrillator upgrade in 2014, I was sitting on a chair in my hospital room. I was bored. I knew it would be at least a few more hours before I would be discharged. I just wanted to go home and get back to some semblance of normalcy (although when you have a thing that looks like a computer mouse camped out in your collar bone area, well it’s kind of hard to view that as normal).
I sensed a presence at my door. I looked up and saw a man standing there. He told me he was a hospital chaplain and asked if I would like to chat. He asked me what I was in the hospital for, and I explained. He wondered if I was anxious. Having been to this rodeo once before with the pacemaker implantation, I told him that I was familiar with the recovery process, as well as how odd it was to have this device inside my body. Then we just chatted.
But now that I think back on it, I talked about my retirement, and the difficulty of leaving a job behind when I thought I would be doing it for more years to come. As I think back on it now, the recovery from the defibrillator implantation was much easier than the recovery from the spontaneous implantation into retirement. I think talking to the chaplain helped me begin what I admit has been a long process to accept that retirement needed to happen, and that I would be okay.
In writing this post, I looked at some hospital websites for information on their chaplain services. I found that the one for the VCU Medical hospital in Richmond, Virginia contains a very helpful perspective on using the chaplain services. It provides the following reasons to ask for chaplaincy services: you are anxious; afraid; upset; overwhelmed; grieving; hopeless; lonely; or yes, even facing death. You also may be wondering: why do I have this disease; why me, why now; is it okay to be angry with God (yep, been there, done that); will God forgive me (also, been there and God has done that); what will it feel like to die; and will I have a future after death.
As you can see most of these reasons do not mean that you have to be at the death exit on the turnpike. You may be far away from the death exit, maybe even at the Molly Pitcher Rest Area. But you deserve to have an outlet for your questions, a person who can help you come to a place of resolution or peace. It is an outlet that I heartily endorse.
Melanie discovered that she had heart failure in 2013. She spent the next 7 years learning how to live with the condition, and how to achieve balance and personal growth. Then in October 2020, she received a heart transplant. This blog is about her journey of the heart.