Celebrating Clergy Appreciation Month (part 1)

The role of a Colorado chaplain in the donation process

By Rae Price - October 19, 2023

Photo: Janet Barriger in the chapel at St. Anthony North Hospital

A hospital chaplain plays an important role in many areas of the hospital. Not only do they provide spiritual and emotional support for patients and families, they are also an integral part of the hospital staff in many hospitals.

Rev. Janet Barriger, MDiv, ACPE certified educator, clinical pastoral education for St. Anthony North Hospital in Westminster, Colo, and the CommonSpirit Health Colorado/Utah/Kansas Division explained chaplains at St. Anthony North provide many administrative duties, including assisting families after the death of a loved one. In relation to the Rocky Mountain Lions Eye Bank, chaplains there also serve as designated requestors for eye-tissue donation. This means they talk to families of decedents who are not on the donor registry about the opportunity to make donation decisions on their loved one’s behalf.

The chaplain’s role is diverse with support provided to patients as well as families.

“Sometimes the family is our patient, because the staff is focused on the patient,” Barriger explained. “When people are sick, whatever family dynamics are going on can be heightened or increased or escalated; especially if there is a threat of end of life.”

She further explained that sometimes families are very distressed. Whether they are grieving, or they are in shock, it can be very traumatic.

“We are often with them, supporting them spiritually, emotionally with what’s going on, as well as supporting the patient.”

Serving All Faiths and Beliefs

Most chaplains are non-denominational and because St. Anthony North is a teaching hospital for chaplains, the religious background and training changes with each new group of interns. However, Barriger noted that because CommonSpirit Health (formerly Centura) is a Catholic hospital, the mission leader must be Catholic, but all other chaplains can be of different religious backgrounds.

“It’s really about being able to minister across traditions,” she said.

With that in mind, she noted the chaplain team has access to a variety of resources including religious books on site or on the Internet where they can find readings or scripture that might be meaningful to patients or family members.

Barriger said spirituality can be very broad and the spiritual care assessment is resource-based and focuses on four areas of a patient’s sense of meaning and not tied to any one religion. The areas of focus are:
•             patient sense of meaning,
•             patient sense of hope,
•             patient sense of the holy, and
•             patient sense of relationships or community.

“We can define spirituality as ‘meaning making’ to a patient,” she said. Additionally, it can be helpful for patients and families to just spend time and hear what is most meaningful to them, what gives them passion, what gives them joy, or what are they afraid of, explained Barringer.

Not everyone is receptive to a chaplain’s presence, and Barriger said her staff understands that.

“Sometimes they are just upset and grieving, and we haven’t offended them… we can be a reminder of death,” she said, adding, “One of my goals in chaplaincy education is, we are not just here to support and make meaning before they die. Maybe help families or patients reflect and do some life review.”

Advocates for People’s Values

When discussing the role of chaplains and serving as designated requestors to talk to families about eye tissue donation, Barriger commented, “One way to think about that is, our work as advocates for people’s values, which may be religious values, or they may have other values that have developed out of their family, with a good experience or a bad experience of donation in the past.”

She continued, “We are really focused on honoring what is most meaningful and what’s valuable to people. Is this gift of life something that will help some of their grief? That will help them stay connected to the loved one, to know that person is continuing to help someone else in the world.”

Sometimes approaching families about eye-tissue donation can be difficult but Barriger said, “In general, it’s a good experience with families being happy that their loved one is able to contribute to the world, that is really meaningful for people.”

The discussion of donation can also be meaningful when explaining how and where the tissue can help, often far reaching. Barriger said she enjoys seeing the monthly reports from RMLEB showing how many eye tissues were recovered and where they go around the world.

More than Spiritual Care

The chaplains at St. Anthony North provide more than spiritual and emotional care; as mentioned, they handle many administrative duties when someone dies. Often this involves handling the proxy process, serving as a designated requestor. They also assist families with decisions and logistics of funeral homes.

“We are stewards of peoples’ bodies, helping make sure they get where they need to go. That is important because the nurse has to move on to caring for the next patient who is put in that room,” Barriger explained.

As a teaching hospital for chaplains, it is important for students to understand the value of doing the administrative tasks. “We are always providing spiritual and emotional care first, but these administrative tasks help make us valuable in the hospital and can be important in staying involved,” she said.

Barriger added, “And, I think the staff see us as doing more than just praying with people. We are part of the system and there is always the advocacy of people’s values and beliefs in all of these tasks.”

Paths to Hospital Chaplaincy

There are several paths a person can take to become a hospital chaplain and St. Anthony North can be one of those paths. The hospital provides clinical pastoral education (CPE), which Barriger noted isn’t necessarily just for hospital chaplains, but it is one of the steps. CPE programs are offered by many religions and are focused on action and question learning; the clinical work, the theological question, and working on each person’s own emotional pieces; what does it feel like to approach a family? It may be for clinical chaplaincy, or other people are completing a unit in a hospital because it is required for their church ordination.

Barriger said some hospital chaplains also serve in houses of worship but may work one night a week or more on-call at a hospital because it keeps them engaged in this kind of work. She pointed out the relationships are different, and some chaplains prefer church work because it provides for a longer-term relationship with individuals. “There are challenges and benefits of both,” she noted.

For those looking to enter the field, Barriger said it is important to keep in mind that the hospital chaplain’s role is one of teamwork.

“The important thing is the interdisciplinary teamwork, that we are working with lots of different disciplines within the hospital. A lot of our work as chaplains is to see and hear people. And, that includes families, the families are not the patients of the staff, but we are there to support them.”

Of course, hospital chaplains also provide support for patients who recover and go home. But for those who don’t recover, Barriger noted, “There is a change from a relationship of presence to a relationship of memories when someone dies. When someone dies it doesn’t mean the relationship ends, but it changes.”

RMLEB appreciates the role of chaplains who play an integral role in eye-tissue donation and is happy to recognize them during Eye Donation Month. Watch for part 2 of our Clergy Appreciation Month blog next week for a Wyoming hospital chaplain’s point of view.

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