The desert winds blew hard, unfurling the huge flag at the entrance to Eisenhower Medical Center in Rancho Mirage and as I walked through the main entrance for the first time on Wednesday, May 14th with my new badge identifying me as “Chaplain’s Assistant” I was struck immediately by the sense of anxiety surrounding a new challenge that was heightened by the size and reputation of this particular institution. Not only does it bear the name of an important American hero and president, it has also served many famous individuals. The anxiety over the undertaking as a volunteer Chaplain’s Assistant was real and fed in part by the fear of meeting many folks for the first time who already dedicate many hours to serving as spiritual “messengers” to those who are in pain and going through a difficult time. This was brought home when the Director of the Volunteers informed a group of new folks that they were joining a hospital volunteer corps that had served over five million hours since the hospital opened in 1971.
Eisenhower Medical Center is a large and daunting facility with over 475 beds with a well-regarded Emergency Department, separate cancer treatment facility and medical offices located on the same campus. It is the stated objective of the Chaplaincy Services Department that every patient will be visited at least once by a member of our volunteer staff to affirm religious affiliation, if any, and attempt to determine the spiritual needs of those patients. There are about 12 volunteers working out of the Chaplain’s office during the Monday to Friday weekday visitation schedule. The Chaplain is Fr. Donald Craig, a Roman Catholic priest with excellent pastoral care skills and a determination to maintain a highly regarded Chaplaincy Department.
Anxiety and the resultant fear I was soon to learn were unfounded. Meetings with the chaplain and over eight hours of bedside visits with other chaplain’s assistants gave me a sense of confidence that the ministry of pastoral care, though challenging, is simple as long as we invite the Holy Spirit into the process. As a diaconal postulant should I find this all that surprising? Absolutely not, but occasionally I still allow anxiety surrounding the unknown to open the door to the fear that becomes a challenge to my faith.
Two particular thoughts come to mind after over 30 hours of visiting with patients and sharing the incredible experience of realizing the truth in the words, “Whenever two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” (Matthew 18:20) The acknowledgment of a patient of their joy in seeing you as evidenced by a smile when you identify as being part of the chaplain’s staff or the uplifting experience of seeing tears following prayer, tears of comfort not of pain. The first thought is to acknowledge the value of initial prayer with other chaplain’s assistants before starting out on our rounds and the powerful reminder of the presence of the Holy Spirit in the room with the patient as I hesitate for a brief moment to allow the Holy Spirit enters the room before I do. This is a technique that I find very helpful not only in the hospital setting but I have found it also reinforcing at any time that I may been entering someone else’s space. Preparation, preparation, preparation! In that moment of hesitation I feel uplifted and sense that it changes my attitude even to the extent of putting a smile on my face. (I acknowledge my belief that the Spirit is present even before I arrive at the hospital that day.)
The second thought has to deal with active listening, a topic we studied this year in the School for Ministry. The role of the chaplain’s assistant though not one of a counselor but as a provider of pastoral care requires fine-tuning active listening skills. The patient who is clearly uncomfortable due to pain or the patient struggling with anxiety over a pending diagnosis creating their discomfort quite often is anxious to share some element of their personal life that may or may not be related directly to their medical condition and may in fact reflect important information about where they are in their spiritual journey. It is suggested that as an active listener we focus on content and feelings as we listen to the patient’s “story” and when we respond that we do so in such a way that it reflects on that content and their feelings. The challenge at this point is to not attempt to weave in your own content or your own personal feelings!
A particular personal experience has reinforced my decision not only to do this particular summer education project but also my response to the call to become a Deacon. John had been a patient in the hospital for five days but for numerous reasons no one from the chaplain’s office and had the opportunity to meet with him one-on-one. I was met with a smile on his face I entered his room and introduced myself as a chaplain’s assistant and realized that I was meeting with someone who was close in age to me and someone who is truly happy to see me. The early part of our conversation included a chat regarding the weather, Memorial Day and the beautiful American flag being displayed in full thanks to the wind.
John had identified as Christian upon admission and he volunteered that he was a Veteran of the war in Vietnam. I then identified as a Vietnam Veteran as well. I then offered to pray with John as I do with any patient who is interested. John and I prayed prayers of gratitude, petitions for healing and prayers for the doctors and nurses. Yes, John prayed including a prayer of gratitude for my service as a chaplain. Afterward John shared with me that he was a retired pastor and Navy chaplain who had served as a hospital chaplain during his career. As he shared this tears came to his eyes as he expressed additional gratitude for my service as a chaplain and in the church.
For some this may seem just another brief moment in time where two men made a connection and shared just as Jesus would have us share acknowledging his presence and his love. For John and me this was something greater and a moment that we shall both cherish.