Tears and touching are some of the most profound forms of connection among people. They soften hearts and open doors to each other’s hearts that were otherwise closed. Spiritual care in a hospital environment brings people together in the best way possible under the worst of conditions. I regularly meet strangers and confront situations that require patience and acceptance so I can do the best for others.
What does a multi-faith hospital chaplain do? First and foremost, a chaplain is always there to be a listening ear in a compassionate and caring manner. A hospital chaplain cares about spiritual and emotional well-being of patients, their families or loved ones, as well as the staff at the hospital. As chaplains, we are in the service of everyone, religious or non-religious, faithful, agnostic, or atheist, during both good times and bad times to share joy and sorrow. We visit the patients that need comfort and support, and listens to their worries, concerns or happiness. We are with the patient in their last moments to offer blessings and stay with the families when their loved ones are going through this transition. We are together the broken-hearted who need to be heard, patients who request prayers before their surgeries, and babies who are newly born or die young. We touch hearts, wipe tears, listen to life stories, open spiritual gates, and help people reflect on their own lives to find out where they are on their journey. Lastly, we encourage and empower the ones who are in their recoveries. Sometimes patients are the teachers who allow chaplains journey with them.
I had an interesting encounter with a 67-year-old Catholic lady who came to the hospital for spinal surgery. She did not ask for a chaplain visit but her name was on my unit list. I met her post-procedure during my regular rounds. She was frustrated and upset because the doctors told her that she had cancer; however, what type of cancer she had was still unknown ten days into her stay. She was emotionally overwhelmed with worry about her physical condition because the doctors were still testing the results, and she felt they were not giving her clear answers. She was not alone, because her daughters lived close to her however she could not help but cry when she started to speak about being away from her home and family for a long time, along with the uncertainty she faced which was obviously hindering her ability to cope. I was very concerned with her psychological and emotional state. She was not ready for a longer conversation with me. She dismissed me after a few more minutes and said, “I rather want to be alone at this moment”. I replied, “I understand, it is okay with me.” Upon leaving, I reflected on not being able to help her at all. I felt badly of the situation, and felt that I had missed an opportunity to provide care that I was not able to reach through to her.
The next day, the patient’s nurse telephoned the Spiritual Care Office and requested that I return. The phone call meant a lot for me because I anticipated that there was something significant happening. I immediately went to the patient’s floor and saw her nurse. She told me that the patient wanted to see me before she was transferred to another unit. Upon entering the room, the lady told me that she did not want me to know her as a rude person. She apologized for her attitude the other day and said, “We are both believers and we should not be like that towards each other.” I confirmed this sentiment, and she continued, “I don’t know as much about your faith as I should know, and I felt that I need to know more of it.” She asked me if I could talk about the main principles of Islam, and I accepted her request. I stayed with her explaining, shortly, the basics of Islam, how God sent prophets to all human beings throughout history, and how the Qur’an was revealed and compiled. We had a good discussion which relaxed her and as our conversation ended our relationship between each other was more important than her illness. Her embarrassment replaced with peace at the end. “I am so glad that I was able to call you back,” she said with contentment. “I am so glad that you took the opportunity to invite me again to your room” I responded with a smile. This time, I left her room with a great sense of relief and satisfaction.
“Can you hold my hand?”
Another thought-provoking visit was with a 69-year-old lady who came to the Emergency Department (ED) on a night when I was on overnight duty. It was 4:40 am when I was paged by the ED nurse as the patient asked for a Catholic priest, who was not available. She indicated that the multi-faith chaplain was okay to visit with her. She looked youthful and pretty in her bed but, as I asked her about her concern, she responded, “I am scared of dying.” Doctors had told her that she had an obstruction which was resulting in a removal of one of her kidneys. She was also experiencing blood pressure and diabetic issues.
She was alone at the hospital and her emotions were in a whirl with many thoughts on her mind as the surgery was imminent. We continued the conversation in a manner to address the frustration and fear she was feeling. She responded positively to my empathy and reassurance. She told me about her financial difficulties and that she would lose her home soon. Then she asked me, “Can you do me a favor?” I said, “Sure, what is it?” She asked, “Can you hold my hand?” I took her hand gently and prayed to God, asking Him to provide her with comfort, peace, relief from her worries and for a successful surgery. It was a moment that we both appreciated. After prayer, she asked me about myself and we spoke of our families. I reminded her that the Spiritual Care would be happy to be with her and that I would like to follow up with her during her stay. She seemed relieved and less anxious by the time I departed. I can only imagine how stressful it was for a lonely lady who was dealing with many issues in a strange place in the middle of the night.
From a personal point of view, conversations on faith or religion always remain behind the feelings or emotions of the patients during my visits. I focus on their current spiritual or emotional crisis within the hospital. My goal in my interactions with patients is to provide a safe and non-judgmental space built upon trust and a genuine human connection. After assessing their needs, sometimes I explore if they have a religious background or community, any spiritual practices such as reading holy texts, prayers, rituals, or meditations which might be helpful support for them. I also try to understand if any of their practices help them cope with their difficulties in any way. On the other hand, each patient is unique and each visit is different than the last. One common point is that when words cease to be enough, a warm touch on the hand or the shoulder, or a silent tear shed, become powerful enough to build the connection between the chaplain and the patient. The goal is to always share a genuine moment between two strangers, one of which may literally be on their death bed. It helps to remind us that our faith and appreciation of the Divine can unite us, and that we will all return to God someday.