When one is admitted to the hospital for an indefinite amount of time, thoughts of confusion and fear often race through the mind.
While medical staff work around the clock to heal a person’s physical needs, there’s another group of people who work to ensure the spiritual side is being taken care of during a time of crisis.
Debbie Shields, senior chaplain at Johnson City Medical Center, put it best when she said the basic role of a chaplain is to simply walk alongside someone when they feel like they’re at their lowest point.
“In Mountain States (Health Alliance), we talk about the healing of mind, body and spirit, so it’s a holistic approach to health care, realizing that when one aspect of that is sick, it affects all aspects of our total care, and so it’s really important when folks come into this place. It’s traumatic,” she said.
The duties of a chaplain are many and can vary from saying a prayer with someone or the simple act of holding a person’s hand. At JCMC, five resident chaplains and more than 40 volunteer chaplains, representing various faith groups including leaders from the Muslim, Jewish, Hindu and Wiccan communities, serve the hospital community.
The chaplains offer pastoral support to patients and their families and staff 24 hours a day. In addition to spiritual care, weekly chapel services are led by the chaplains in the hospital’s main chapel and the chapel in the Niswonger Children’s Hospital.
The chaplain program also offers a clinical pastoral education, or CPE, program, which acts a training course for future chaplains.
No matter what faith background a person comes from, the chaplain acts as a spiritual caretaker for patients who wish to speak with a chaplain.
“We’re there to meet the patient where they are. We don’t walk into the room with an agenda. They will let us know based on our conversation in the room with them what it is that they need,” Shields said.
For a place that deals daily with issues of life and death, Shields said she believes the hospital serves as one of the holiest places one can enter.
“We usher in life when people are born here, and we are partnering with people and their families when they transition from this life to the next, so for me, that’s some of the most holiest ground you can stand on,” she said.
Before coming into the role of senior chaplain, Shields served as a resident chaplain for 12 years, mainly working with women and children. After completing seminary training at Nashville’s Vanderbilt Divinity School and completing the CPE program at JCMC, Shields joined the hospital in 1996.
While she originally intended to be a parish minister, Shields discovered that the ministry of hospital chaplain was where she was meant to be. Even though she’s serving in a managerial position now, Shields still performs chaplaincy duties, which she said is essential in managing the program.
“It’s a blessing for me to be at the bedside, but it’s also a blessing for me to be a clinical supervisor here and the senior chaplain here,” she said.
During her time as a resident chaplain, Shields said she spent time with a patient who had just been diagnosed with metastatic cancer and was given only weeks left to live.
The routine visit turned into anything but when the patient began talking with Shields about spiritual struggles, mistakes that had been made and the that they were going to leave their children behind.
“I felt like I was standing on the edge of eternity with this individual,” she said. “There aren’t a lot of visits that drive me to my knees, but when I prayed with that patient, I was on my knees.”
It’s moments like that are the reason Shields decided to become a chaplain.
“That affirms everyday what I do in this place. To know that if I can be there for one individual in a desperate time of need, to be of support and to help them process what they’re going through, it’s worth absolutely everything,” she said.
On Thursday morning, Andrew Gibbens, a resident chaplain at JCMC and Woodridge Psychiatric Hospital, was sitting in the JCMC chaplain’s office when he saw a family of a patient he had seen while assigned to the trauma unit. Before making the morning’s other rounds, Gibbens stepped outside to talk with the family.
“I still continue to have a relationship with them even though I’m not there all the time like I used to be,” he said.
Walking up to people who are visibly in need of someone to talk to isn’t something out of the norm for a chaplain. Gibbens said sometimes it’s as simple as being patient and just listening to what they have to say.
“There’s a lot of listening that’s involved in chaplaincy and that’s something that I really like. You don’t always have to have the answers,” he said.
That kind of one-on-one interaction with someone, whether it’s a patient, family, doctor or nurse, is something Gibbens appreciates about being a chaplain — a role he said sees people open up in ways they might not otherwise open up to with family and friends.
Gibbens went to Emmanuel Christian Seminary with the intention of doing academic theological studies, but decided he enjoyed the pastoral side of ministry. After learning about the CPE program, he enrolled in the program and began his residency in April.
People have a need to talk and have someone listen to them when their spirit is troubled. During those times, Gibbens said the chaplain has an opportunity to be there as a healing presence.
“I think we have a unique position within the health care facility, cause we’re there for support for everyone. I think it’s just a really great way to be with people,” he said.
Earlier this week, Gibbens dealt with a patient who was being taken off a ventilator. He was there with the patient’s two daughters as one of them talked about recent trauma within the family and losing a close friend.
“I didn’t know what to do. You don’t always know exactly what to do,” he said. “There wasn’t much more I could say, so I decided to put my hand on her shoulder and shortly after, she said she felt peace. The peace of God, really, was present there all of the sudden.”
Madonna Flanders, another resident chaplain, described that kind of experience as acting as “God’s agent.”
“We are God’s agent in whatever form the patients need to see or experience God’s presence, because people come in from every religious background and no religious background, and they just need spiritual comfort,” she said.
Flanders is in her second year as resident chaplain at JCMC, a job she took after completing seminary training at Wesley Theological Center in Washington.
“I found that in chaplaincy that I was doing God’s work in the place where God wanted me to be. In hospital rooms serving patients in the hospital setting was exactly where I thought God wanted me to be,” she said.
Whether it’s talking to someone in a room, listening to someone in an elevator or offering a shoulder to cry on in the hallway, Flanders believes it’s all part of working as “God’s agent.”
“As a chaplain, you go in and you offer them that comfort, that support that can sometimes be the peace beyond what the medical personnel can provide to help them get through a really difficult time,” she said.