By Sister Martha Donnelly, PBVM
As a chaplain in a hospital with a CPE center, I have never run out of challenges in my ministry. Mentoring students is as challenging and rewarding as the rest of my ministry.
One of my sites is the cancer center, which includes outpatient chemotherapy and radiation. Providing pastoral care to these patients is similar to seeing patients in the hospital. Many times the best referrals come from a nurse on the run who has noticed an issue that needs addressing. When I initiate a visit, my goal is to establish a relationship with the patient and, as that relationship grows, make a spiritual assessment.
When I began ministering with the palliative care team, I followed one of our supervisors who was working in this area with a resident. It was the resident who got me on board. I continue to learn how to be a part of this team as I work with residents in this assignment.
One of the pluses in this ministry is that when you are in the room with the provider and the patient, you are seen as part of the team. You listen to the patient’s story and the interaction with the provider. Often previous notes by chaplains give you an idea of the patient’s spiritual background. In conversation, with or without the provider present, you make a spiritual assessment. This conversation helps me determine my plan of care.
During these visits in the clinic I offer emotional and spiritual support by active listening and validation of feelings. One woman’s family did not understand how hard dialysis was for her. She needed someone to listen and to affirm her. I encouraged her to be open to a visit from a chaplain while in dialysis. I saw her again and spent time listening and provided prayer for her and her family.
As a chaplain, I listen for values and beliefs and ways of coping that have worked in the past. A man who had lost his partner shared some of his story. The provider was working to help the physical pain. As I listened, I sensed he was grieving appropriately and was realistic about his grief. He then shared that his church community has been supportive of him. His concern was with how brushed aside he had felt the last time he had seen the pastor. At this point, the provider returned with a prescription. We both affirmed his love for his church family. We encouraged him to try church again and give the pastor another chance. And if he still felt “pushed away,” to share those feelings with the pastor.
Ministering with palliative care in the outpatient setting is a wonderful way to offer ministry to patients we might never see in the hospital. At the same time it is an opportunity to build relationships with the providers and those persons who later do become patients in the hospital. As pastoral care grows into new areas, it is an exciting time to be a chaplain.
Sister Martha Donnelly is chaplain at Gunderson Lutheran in LaCrosse, WI.