By Katherine M. Piderman, PhD, BCC
“Look at these holes in the sand,” said my dad, as we walked along a beach in my birthplace, Vancouver, B.C. “Where do you think they came from?” Dad asked.
“A stick. Someone poked the sand with a stick,” I said with the certainty that only a five year old can command.
“Hmm,” said Dad, “That could be one explanation. Do you think it’s possible that the holes were caused by something under the sand, rather than something above it?”
“Maybe,” I said, weighing the possibility rather dubiously. Then Dad suggested that we look for clues to see if we could find figure it out. First, he told me to stomp hard beside one of the holes. I did, and a spout of water came up! I was amazed and excited! “We need to dig down, Daddy, and find out what’s under there!”
This was starting to seem like a real adventure! We dug in a big circle and went down about a foot, and then we saw it! It was a clam! Could it be that this creature and others like it had made the holes on the sand? “Daddy, how could they do it?” I asked. “Let’s get to know this one. Maybe we’ll find out,” said my dad.
We took time to admire the clam’s finely-ridged and subtly-colored shell as it rested in its burrow, but came up with no clear evidence to help us. “This seems like a good reason to go to the library, don’t you think?” Dad said. I agreed and off we went….
You might say that on that day at the beach, my dad gave me my first lessons in research. He encouraged me to be curious, to ponder possibilities, to engage in an intentional course of action, to delight in discovery, and then to be curious all over again. Those are basic steps in any research investigation, on the beach or elsewhere.
Over the years, I’ve found that there are zillions of things I would like to learn about the patients in my care: What does spirituality really mean to them? What religious practices contribute to their well-being? Can spiritual care be offered in a structured way and be shown to make a difference? And so many more…
I’ve been blessed with several insightful and generous research mentors. They have helped me ponder various possibilities and choose among those with strong potential to benefit others. They’ve guided me to develop aims and hypotheses, and to choose and design intentional courses of action to study them. They have led me to experience the thrill of discovery, only to find that the discovery is just the beginning of many more questions, much more pondering, more intentional activity, and finally, more discovery! In turn, I’ve delighted in working with colleagues who want to “get their feet wet” in research. Guiding them as they engage in various research-related activities has given me the opportunity to benefit from their perspectives, and to see them develop competence and confidence as they gain appreciation for the ways that research can enhance their understanding of patients and guide their ministry.
Our work has led to important and clinically relevant findings. For example, in projects at Mayo Clinic, we have learned that patients with alcoholism are twice as likely to remain continuously sober for one year if they increase their private spiritual practices during addiction treatment.1 We have found evidence to predict which groups of medical and surgical inpatients are most likely to want to see a chaplain and what they value in a chaplain’s ministry.2 We have discovered that a multidisciplinary intervention, which included discussions with a chaplain, helped patients with advanced cancer to maintain their quality of life during radiation therapy.3
In my experience, many patients, even those who are very ill, are grateful for the opportunity to participate in research. They see it as a way to “make a difference,” and also as a way to explore and confirm their own beliefs and values. We have heard comments from those participating in qualitative projects, such as, “Thank you again for this opportunity to work with you. I really enjoy it. I hope it will be valuable to other brain cancer patients.” “Thank you for the time. It’s an opportunity to go deeper and deeper about these things.” “It’s great to talk about these things. When can I come back?”4 Their responses make research worthwhile for me, and in a very real way, a ministry in itself.
Not all chaplains want to or are able to become involved in research in a formal sense, but we are all charged with doing our best to understand each patient in our care. As we learn about them one by one, and discern how to offer them the most effective, respectful ministry, we can become curious, ponder, explore, discover, and become curious all over again. This kind of process gives us entry into relationships of infinite meaning and value, and it is the way more formal research investigations begin.
Katherine M. Piderman is staff chaplain and coordinator of research in the Department of Chaplain Services at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN. In addition, she is assistant professor of psychiatry at Mayo College of Medicine. She is also a member of the NACC’s Research Task Force.
1 Piderman, K.M., Schneekloth, T.D., Pankratz, V.S., Stevens, S.R., & Altchuler S.I. Spirituality and alcoholism treatment and continuous abstinence for one year. International Journal of Psychiatry in Medicine, 2008, 38(4), 391-406.
2 Piderman, K.M., Marek, D.V., Jenkins, S.M., Johnson, M.E., Buryska, J.F., Shanafelt, T.D., O’Bryan, F.G., Hansen, P.D., Howick, P.H., Durland, H.L., Lackore, K.A., Lovejoy, L.A., & Mueller, P.S. Predicting patients’ expectations of hospital chaplains: A multisite survey. Mayo Clinic Proceedings, 2010, 85, 11:1002-1010.
3 Johnson, M.E., Piderman, K.M., Sloan, J.A., Huschka, M., Atherton, P.J., Hanson, J.M., Brown, P.D., Rummans, T.A., Clark, M.M., & Frost M.H. Measuring spiritual quality of life in patients with cancer. Journal of Supportive Oncology, 2007; 5(9):437-42.
4 Unpublished material.