Hospital chaplains, channels for others’ worries and grief, work daily to bring peace and comfort to vulnerable individuals and their families. Whether joyfully blessing the birth of a new baby or offering someone their last rites before death, hospital chaplains provide the necessary emotional and spiritual care. The doctors and nurses within a hospital treat patients’ physical needs, but St. Francis Health System Spiritual Care Director Father Jonathon Duncan emphasized that chaplains serve the whole person – “the soul, the heart and the emotions.’
The everyday work of a hospital chaplain, from the mundane to the miraculous, is vital to the well-being of patients. Busy mornings tend to revolve around scheduled surgeries, from simple outpatient operations to more severe heart procedures, for all of which chaplains are available to bring a calming and prayerful presence to anxious patients. Father Duncan explained, “They help our patients hand over their procedure and health to God.”
The chaplains continue their visits throughout the day and discern where their presence will be most impactful by studying each patient’s hospital readmission rate, if they are facing organ failure or death and the strength of their faith.
The help chaplains provide extends beyond patients. Father Duncan’s team of chaplains discovered a need for staff support in recent COVID-19-infested years: “Staff burnout is a real thing, particularly in health care. From our techs and nursing aides to our nurses to our physicians and everything in between, health care can be draining but joyful work.”
Aside from everyday rounds and routine patient visits, chaplains also are present for emergencies, such as a heart attack or seizure, to help support families and hospital staff. The work of a chaplain includes the dynamic of experiencing both the beginning and the end. They welcome life to the world by blessing newborn children and offer invitations to return to God when life nears the end. These events are intertwined by one similarity – a chaplain is there to comfort and promote peace at all stages of a person’s life.
Father Duncan sees miracles in his work. He described as “a simply beautiful scene” watching a man be cared for by his sister as if he were her own child. Over the years, he has experienced a similar miraculous moment more than once. While visiting a patient reluctant to let go of her life on Earth, Father Duncan offered last rites, accompanied by prayers and anointing and followed by the final blessing: “Go forth, Christian soul.” Upon this invitation to reunite with God, the patient’s once-labored breathing stops, and the machines surrounding the room mark the end of the patient’s life. Father Duncan described this moment as “miraculous and beautiful” and the patient’s “moment to see the Lord.”
Hospital chaplains are able to recognize social, emotional and spiritual needs of patients that might escape the focus of doctors and nurses. Each of these elements plays a role in the health of a human being, according to Father Duncan: “Medicine is beginning to see the person not just as a collection of diseases but as an overall person who has to be cared for as an overall person. Chaplains have increasingly become a part of that care team.”
Over time, as Father Duncan has worked with patients, he has adopted the message that “you are more than your body.” He believes chaplains are reminders that every person is also a heart and soul with needs, wants and desires. His team at St. Francis and hospital chaplains worldwide offer messages of hope, strength and peace while establishing Father Duncan’s belief that “You’re more than your disease; you’re more than your treatment; you’re more than your prognosis. To me, if we believe that people are more than just their bodies and more than just their diseases, then, of course, chaplains are essential and they are going to care for the whole person.”
Chaplains are acutely aware of each human aspect that makes up people and how to care for them. Father Duncan believes that “chaplains are now, and increasingly over the last few decades, have become health professionals in their own right.”
By Riley Mathews