Many people envision a hospital chaplain as a priest in a clerical collar praying with religious patients. While that image is true at times, there is much more that chaplains do. We help staff members debrief after an intense case, complete Advance Directives with patients, lead worship services in the chapel, get appropriate clothing for a patient for discharge, and serve on the ethical consultation team.
Yet, the majority of calls I receive are because somewhere in our hospital someone is having a tough time. It might be as simple as a nurse reaching out on behalf of a patient who is lonely and wants to talk, a family anxiously waiting during a surgery, or a hungry individual hanging around the lobby asking for food.
The most frequent call I receive is to support the family of a patient in critical condition. This is what chaplains sign up for; it’s not surprising. But every patient and family is different and listening to their individual stories is key to providing excellent care.
Recently we had a young man in one of our intensive care units with a sad life. He was raised in a family with dysfunction and chaos. As a teenager, he became addicted to drugs, and eventually the consequences of intravenous drug use put him in a life-threatening condition. Because he was estranged from most of his family, it took a great deal of sleuthing on the part of hospital staff to track them down.
Once located, we learned that his parents were uninvolved and the decision for his care would rest on the shoulders of his siblings – people in their early 20s who grew up with the same pain and abandonment as the patient. Watching these young people be thrown into yet another intense and heartbreaking situation motivated the nurses, care navigator and chaplains to provide constant attention to this family.
From the moment they were given the news by the physician that the patient would not survive, one of us was at hand, offering prayers, hugs, tissues, a hospitality cart of food, or just a quiet presence. We located the least expensive funeral option in Toledo and helped them make those calls. The family opted to withdraw medical support from the patient to shorten his suffering, and I encouraged them to focus on the patient’s humanity that had been buried under the drug use. His siblings said that they felt that he was going to a peaceful place for eternity, a peace that was elusive to him on earth.
Experiences like these are meaningful to me and to those who seek our care. Health and well-being is so much more than just our physical condition and chaplains like me work with clinical teams to provide holistic care. This opportunity is what I love most about my job. Every day is different, but every day has the opportunity for meaningful healing – to provide care and compassion to a hurting person. My hope is that this story broadens your view of what a hospital chaplain does. We support patients and families, whatever their needs may be.
Have you experienced support from a chaplain while you or a loved one was in the hospital? Share your story in the comments below.
Rev. Abby Aasbo has worked as a hospital chaplain since 2000 in Illinois, Michigan and Ohio. She is board-certified with the Associations of Professional Chaplains and has a Master of Divinity degree. She works primarily in the oncology and neonatal units at ProMedica Toledo Hospital.