Anyone who has been hospitalized with a serious illness knows there is much more to cope with than just one’s physical condition. Hospital chaplains help patients deal with the emotional and spiritual issues that often accompany medical problems.
Spiritual beliefs and illness
Hospital chaplains respect the spiritual beliefs of all patients and family members, not just those affiliated with specific religions.
Spirituality is more than a particular religion, explained the Reverend Carol Dimmett, a staff chaplain at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. Rather, she said, “Spirituality is what helps give ultimate meaning to our lives and gives us a sense that there is something larger than ourselves from which we can draw comfort, meaning, hope, and strength.”
Patients’ spiritual beliefs can either help them cope with their illness or add to their burden, Ms. Dimmett said. “Chaplains encourage patients to focus not on what is broken but on what is whole and then to try to nurture that,” she added. “We help people to reconnect to their own belief systems and to strengthen or broaden those beliefs. This can be instrumental in restoring a sense of connection and peace.”
How chaplains help
How chaplains help depends on the patient’s wishes. Chaplains can provide comforting bedside visits or act as liaisons between hospital staff and patients’ families.
Chaplains offer pastoral counseling, support groups, crisis intervention, and prayer support to help patients and their families cope with spiritual or emotional distress, grief, or end-of-life issues.
Empathetic listening is an important skill chaplains bring to patients, allowing the patients to have their painful experiences heard and acknowledged. “Sharing their struggles, sorrows, and joys brings intimacy and healing,” Ms. Dimmett said. “This process can help the patients reestablish connections with their sense of self, with the Divine, and with things that were important to them before their illness.”
In addition, hospital chaplains provide patients’ families with support. This can be particularly helpful if a patient is terminally ill or has died. Chaplains may encourage families to share stories about the patient or to pray together. “Prayer helps people release their emotions,” Ms. Dimmett said. “Gathering around the bed with family and friends—sometimes holding hands and uniting in prayer—helps release grief, sadness, and anger. When the family participates, it provides a way for them to share their feelings and cry openly.”
Most hospital chaplains also lead regular worship services—both interdenominational and interfaith—and can conduct marriages, funerals, and other sacraments.
Chaplains and their training
Ms. Dimmett, like many hospital chaplains, is a board-certified chaplain. This certification requires a graduate degree in theology, additional training in clinical pastoral education, ordination or commissioning by a faith organization, and 2,000 hours of work experience as a provisional or associate certified chaplain. She said that all chaplains at MD Anderson are board certified.
For patients and their families, hospital chaplains help ease the spiritual burdens of serious illness.
— K. Stuyck
For more information, talk to your physician, call MD Anderson’s Department of Spiritual Care and Education at 713-792-7184, or visit the Department of Spiritual Care and Education.
OncoLog, March 2015, Volume 60, Number 3