Dr. Jeff Kane: Hospital chaplains
Imagine lying in a hospital bed suffering pain, anxiety, sadness and fear. You feel your body’s betrayed you. You feel lonely, as relatives and friends don’t fully understand what you’re going through. All your plans are suddenly shredded. You feel lost. Your universe is now confusingly different.
Illness is more than being sick. It’s also like being marooned in some alien land. This disorientation isn’t a medical or psychiatric disorder. It’s normal, and more obvious with serious illness. When we’re sick, we’re lonely and confounded, with few tools for navigation, support or protection. It helps to have a guide, someone familiar with the territory. Fortunately, qualified people are available in hospitals, like, for example, chaplains.
When I was in standard medical practice long ago, the hospital chaplains I met seemed to have emerged from Charles Dickens novels. Their long faces, stiff wool suits, holy book in one hand and figurative shovel in the other were for me a picture of gloom.
Since then, notions of religion and spirituality have broadened. So again, imagine lying in a hospital bed, lost in your misery. A person wearing a hospital vest pops in and asks if you’d like her to visit. You ask who she is, and she answers, “I’m from Spiritual Care.” That is, she’s a volunteer chaplain. Would you send her away or be curious enough to ask her in?
She doesn’t represent a particular religion. She’s not there to proselytize or even to cheer you up. Matter of fact, she’s not there to talk at all, but to listen to you. If you tell her about your current emotional situation, she’ll try honestly to empathize, to join you in your uncomfortable cocoon. She won’t fix you, only be with you. If she does her work well, her presence alone will be medicinal. If you’re religious, you might ask her to pray with you, and she will. But her intention is fundamentally to add palpable compassion to your treatment.
A chaplaincy is the only hospital service dedicated exclusively to helping patients and their loved ones sort out and address the emotions that inevitably accompany illness. Social workers do this well, too, but they’re also tasked with acquiring insurance, arranging post-hospital care, and more. Nurses do what they can, considering their ever-increasing work load. And docs do what they can, too, despite having plenty else to do and zero training in emotional care.
So the next time you’re hospitalized and emotionally wrought, please consider requesting a chaplain visit, even if you don’t think of yourself as religious. Compassion is a potent medicine, and it comes without side effects or a bill.
Jeff Kane is a physician and writer in Nevada City.
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