Professional chaplaincy increasing in health circles

This story originally appeared in the Ventura County Star.

As a chaplain, Barbara Adams has walked the halls of Saint John’s Regional Medical Center in Oxnard for years, providing emotional and spiritual care to patients and their families who have experienced trauma or crisis as a result of a shocking diagnosis or chronic illness.

She knows all too well the pain of bearing such knowledge. Three years ago her husband fell critically ill with meningitis, and he was taken to the hospital where Adams worked. She found herself sitting at the bedside of a sick loved one like so many of the patients she had served before.

“During a spiritual or emotional crisis when your life is affected by health issues, we all need to feel supported and empowered,” said Adams. “It’s just a question of where do you get your inner strength?”

Adams’ approach demonstrates the changing nature of chaplaincy, and the difference between professional chaplains and local clergy. Local clergy who volunteer in hospitals usually only serve patients of their own faith. Today, professional chaplains have been trained to take a different, multi-faith approach in providing spiritual care to patients.

Professional chaplains like Adams are members of hospital health care teams who help people draw upon their spiritual strength to find meaning and comfort while the medical team focuses on the body. They often work in palliative care, which concentrates on improving the quality of life for patients and their families when facing a chronic illness, receiving treatment or nearing the end of life.

With approximately 90 million Americans living with serious and life-threatening illness, the demand for palliative care is already strong. That demand will explode with the aging of baby boomers, according to the Center to Advance Palliative Care (CAPC). The number of seriously ill could double over the next three decades, the center’s research shows.

Chaplaincy, a centuries old profession, has recently entered the digital age with a new online program on palliative care that launched this March. The curriculum, developed by the CSU Institute for Palliative Care and HealthCare Chaplaincy, will fill an increasing need for this specialty.

The training to become a board-certified health care chaplain is rigorous, requiring the completion of at least 1,600 hours of clinical pastoral education, an advanced degree and an endorsement from a religious organization.  But only some of those requirements are focused on palliative care.

The online course includes modules, or lessons, on topics such as “Spiritual, Existential and Emotional Issues” and “Palliative Care, Science and Religion Together.” Such titles reflect a newer, multi-faith environment of chaplaincy.

“The role of a chaplain is to be everything to everybody in many ways,” said Father Calin Tamiian, a Byzantine Catholic priest and chaplain who works with Adams at Saint John’s. “I need to connect with people no matter what their opinions on religion or faith.”

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Calin Tamiian, a Byzantine Catholic priest, and Barbara Adams are chaplains who work at Saint John’s Regional Medical Center in Oxnard. Tamiian says his role “is to be everything to everybody in many ways.”

Tamiian once met a man whose mother was dying in the hospital. At first, he remembers, the man was in a rage, yelling at the doctors. This grieving son admitted he was not religious, and Tamiian said they didn’t have to talk about religion. The priest asked him what would make him feel better, and surprisingly going out to the garden calmed him down.

“We were just two people talking about how much his mom meant to him,” said Tamiian.

Sue Wintz, who was a Presbyterian pastor prior to becoming a board certified chaplain, has seen the distinction between clergy and professional chaplains firsthand.

“It’s a pastor’s job to teach according to church belief, while as a chaplain, I let patients teach me,” Wintz said. “I meet people where they are and walk with them on their journey.”

Accordingly, the professional code of ethics for chaplains prohibits proselytizing. In order to be a chaplain for all faiths, chaplains usually begin with asking open, inviting questions, such as, “Where do you find your strength?” The answers range from music to family.

As a Catholic, Adams found strength and comfort in prayer during her husband’s illness. In addition to prayer circles, the other chaplains helped remind her of the practical matters that needed to be done, such as calling her children who live out of state and remembering to eat.

Howard Sharfstein simply needed someone who had time to listen after he was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, a type of cancer. Since doctors do not have an unlimited amount of time to listen to patients, Sharfstein found solace in the unexpected presence of a chaplain while waiting for an operation.

“I was scared, sitting silently with my wife in the pre-op patient room, and in walks this very short woman who turns out to be a chaplain and Catholic nun. And she asks if we want to talk,” said Sharfstein. “So, there we were – this terrified Jew and Catholic nun I had never met before.”

But this difference in religion did not hinder the chaplain from using her skills to get them to speak about his concerns and fears.

“Facing my truth at that moment – the fear of dying – was extremely therapeutic,” Sharfstein said.

While that may not seem to be a comforting thought, Sharfstein asserts that chaplaincy is not simply consoling the sick and dying.

“[Chaplaincy] is helping someone be instructively reflective. They don’t say, ‘Everything’s going to be fine,’ but help you frame your thoughts and express your worries,” said Sharfstein.

He has been cured of his cancer, but the chaplains who helped him through his illness have left an impression. Currently, Sharfstein is a personal lawyer in New York City, but has worked halfway through his clinical pastoral education and will become a chaplain next year.

Patients and chaplains can attest to the importance of palliative care, but their work is not billable for insurance and does not produce revenue, according to Wintz. Still, if palliative care was fully established in the country’s hospitals, total savings could amount to $6 billion per year, according to CAPC. Hospitals are recognizing the value of palliative care, the organization has found, with the number of palliative care teams doubling in the past six years.

That growing workforce is also reflected in the high enrollment in the online palliative care course for chaplains. In the first two weeks since its launch, two cohorts of thirty students have been filled, with plans to open another one for June.

As for the nonmonetary rewards of the profession, Adams says, “There are plenty of people suffering, and I am able to make a difference for somebody. What is important is to have them to be honored and fed.”

Tricia Tongco, a graduate student at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, is a Center intern.

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