October 26, 2023
The job of a hospital chaplain is multi-faceted. From providing spiritual care for patients and their families to supporting the needs of staff as necessary to performing community outreach, hospital chaplains need to have a good understanding of the spiritual and emotional culture of their hospital.
Most hospital chaplains do not fall into their role by chance, whether a paid staff member or a volunteer. A history of experience with providing spiritual care, even in other settings and specialized training can give chaplains the ability to be compassionate and tailor their support to the needs of a variety of religious beliefs. Many say it is a ‘calling’ and this is true for Chaplain Dave at Banner Wyoming Medical Center.
We sat down with him to talk about what it’s like to be a hospital chaplain, how they serve patients, the role they play in eye tissue donation and Clergy Appreciation Month.
RMLEB: Why did you become a chaplain?
Chaplain Dave: When I first moved to Casper in 1991, I was approached by a friend at the fire department and asked if I would be a volunteer chaplain for the fire department. I was honored to do it. Later in 2000, the chaplain at Wyoming Medical Center approached me and said he was doing a clinical pastoral education class that he thought would be perfect for me. I eventually said yes, and my sister paid for the initial class and all subsequent classes that I took. I became a volunteer chaplain with WMC as well.
Before I was even a college student, a friend of mine said if you want to do something important with your life, you can work with people or the Bible because those are the things that will last forever. And so, as a chaplain, I get to do both. I kind of latched on to that.
We now have two staff chaplains at WMC, me and Chaplain Sunny. I volunteered for years and have now been on staff for 4 years. Sunny and I work well together.
RMLEB: Tell me what an average day at Banner WMC looks like for you as a hospital chaplain.
Chaplain Dave: Basically, what we do is spiritual support. Spiritual guidance for our patients, staff, doctors, families, and community. All throughout the day, as we come and go, it can be as simple as a basic prayer before surgery. For example, I recently had surgery and asked Chaplain Sunny to pray with me before my surgery.
Part of our daily duties can include sitting with families in the waiting room and supporting them, giving a book of faith, listening to their concerns, talking with families and patients. It can be very, very deep conversations and topics or it can be light-hearted stuff.
I enjoy talking with everyone, from Christians to Atheists. We serve them all and just love them the best we can. Something I’ve learned from Chaplain Sunny that I use every day is what she calls “The ABC’s to Chaplaincy – Always Be Compassionate.”
We show up for the patients, their families, and our staff when someone needs something. We bring a spiritual and emotional side to the equation. The physical, mental, and healthcare needs are being met by other staff here at WMC so working together, we are able to fully take care of the whole person.
We approach each situation open-mindedly and let the patients teach us about where they are.
RMLEB: How do you know where a patient is spiritually or emotionally? How do you determine best to help them or serve them?
Chaplain Dave: One of the things we do is a spiritual assessment. We ask questions. For example, I’m remembering a particular patient that was not interested in talking so much with us. But Chaplain Sunny and I were still able to serve him well and meet the needs that he had. We made sure animal therapy and physical therapy came by to see him; we checked in with his family when we saw them in the hallway to make sure their spiritual needs were being met.
We did everything we could, Chaplain Sunny particularly, to ensure the patient, even though he may not have needed to speak with us, still had a good support system in the hospital and that his family was taken care of so they could be strong for him.
When we ask questions, I like to use a favorite spiritual assessment as I learned it, titled “H.O.P.E”. It stands for History, Organization, Personal, and Effects of medical care. I ask the patient about their spiritual history, then I blend the organization and personal together.
Often times, I’ll get an answer from a patient that is something like, “I was raised Catholic, but I haven’t been to any church in years, and I feel closest to the heavens when I am fishing.” This gives me a great insight into how I can best serve that person in the present. A lot of times I’ll get an eye-opening response, just letting the patients talk freely and listening.
Once I had a patient that spent a long time in the hospital. In one of my first visits, I asked “How might I serve you best?” The patient said that they missed just sitting in a room and watching TV with someone. So, that’s what we did. No talking, we saved our conversation for the commercials. We just sat in each other’s presence watching TV. It’s what they needed.
RMLEB: These are very precious and special memories. Thank you for sharing them with us. In your role as a hospital Chaplain, are there times where you’ve had end-of-life conversations with families?
Chaplain Dave: Yes, we do. We often discuss end-of-life decisions with families. We provide support for them and honor their beliefs, whatever they may be. We’ve also been involved with discussing organ, eye, and tissue donation with families. I’ve worked with several families over the years and even kept in touch with some donor families that lost ones who became donors.
Working with families through the grief of losing a loved one and the hope that donation brings their loved ones is very special and unique. It’s so wonderful to be of service to the folks working in donation and come to see the family heal over time.
I’ll tell you, there is no more sacred place than beside the hospital bed.
RMLEB: Did you know October is Clergy Appreciation Month? Here at RMLEB, we want to ensure that the clergy in our two-state region of Wyoming and Colorado know how much we appreciate what they do in the hospitals, their communities and to help restore sight through eye tissue donation. After all the work you do to take care of others, tell us how you take care of yourself? What should chaplains and clergy do this month especially for self-care?
Chaplain Dave: Well, you always have to work on it. You have to give yourself a break. A friend of mine used to say, “Three deaths is the limit.” After you have counseled for three deaths, you need to find another chaplain to be on call and take a break. Be able to recognize yourself when you are getting overwhelmed. Take a step back. It’s good to have a trusted sounding board. We need to decompress as humans.
When I was young, I had my guitar close to my studies desk and when things got heavy, I would sing some songs and play my guitar. I could rest and reset and feel refreshed. There are a few staff check-in on me, and I feel valued because they do. I check in on them too. I think all the staff at WMC check in on each other.
I think it’s important to talk to someone when you feel overwhelmed. To remember to take a break. And to ask your co-workers for help. We have a great group of volunteer chaplains that Chaplain Sunny and I rely on as well. I would tell clergy to remember to pray and trust in their faith or God, whomever that may be.
As we concluded the interview, Chaplain Dave offered a blessing to all clergy, and eye, organ and tissue donors and their families. Most religions support eye, organ and tissue donation and view it as a final act of love and generosity. At RMLEB, we respect and honor all faiths, beliefs and perspectives.