Life’s hardest moments all in a day’s work for new hospital chaplain |

Life’s hardest moments all in a day’s work for new hospital chaplain

Michelle Rindels
Staff Writer

David Swetman has no pets – just bees. To decompress from work, he used to make a smoothie and sit on a stump a few feet away from a hive, just watching the colony in motion.

Without a bee suit.

Perhaps it’s that propensity to approach volatile situations with sangfroid that makes him a natural fit as Sierra Nevada Memorial Hospital’s new chaplain.

“Bees are so docile,” said Swetman, 53. “They don’t want to sting you. You’ve just got to move slowly, talk nice and sing along.”

The Chicago native took on the official role of the hospital’s “spiritual care services manager” on Aug 24. Since then, he’s been busy coaching a team of 18 volunteers on an interfaith approach to the life-altering crises that are just a day’s work at a hospital.

Even with a resume-worth of marriage and family counseling and a yearlong chaplaincy internship at Sutter General Hospital in Sacramento, the joy and loss of hospital work still gets to him. He chokes up mid-interview at the mention of stillbirths, a tragedy that never fails to shake him up.

In a community as religiously diverse as Nevada County, Swetman’s eclectic history rings familiar. He attended an Evangelical Free college in Illinois and co-founded a church, but also talks of a 14-month pilgrimage in the early ’90s where he sold his earthly possessions to circumnavigate the globe and witness a variety of religious ceremonies.

Today, he describes his own religious background as “interfaith” and says he approaches each patient without an agenda to proselytize.

“There isn’t one way,” he said before pausing. “Well, there is one way – it’s their way.”

The hospital has maintained a chaplaincy program since 1998, according to hospital spokeswoman Brett Bentley, but this year renamed the program “Spiritual Care Services” to reflect the hospital’s holistic approach to healing. The goal is to make contact with every patient at least once, and last year, the spiritual care staff made more than 5,400 patient visits.

“The doctors and nurses focus on the physical,” Swetman said. “We focus on everything that’s not physical.”

That’s a broad scope. A workday might include a conversation with a patient, or his family. He might connect a patient with a clergy member, or speak with an atheist about matters unrelated to religion.

In the delicate moments as patients near death – or as Swetman calls it, “the mystery” – he said his role is one of support.

“One thing I don’t ever do is pretend I know something I don’t know,” he said, “including what happens when they die.”

In his role, there are few easy answers. Outside each hospital room is a canister of hand sanitizer, and he instructs his volunteer chaplains to clean away any prior agenda before entering, the same way they clean their hands. Though they hail from a range of religious backgrounds, volunteers have embraced that concept, he said.

“It takes the pressure off of them to fix people, to change people,” Swetman said. “The one thing I preach is that we don’t preach.”

One of his favorite things about Nevada County is that “people realize there is more to the world than the physical,” even if they call themselves spiritual rather than religious.

As he adjusts to the tensions and challenges of his new job, Swetman said he and his wife Bonnie are looking for a permanent home in the area.

And when that happens, he said he hopes to bring his bee hives with him – as a way to de-stress, of course.

Staff Writer Michelle Rindels may be reached at 477-4247.

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