By Patricia Regan, BA, MS, BCC
For two years I was a hospice chaplain visiting patients in their homes and as in-patients in rooms dedicated to palliative care in two local hospitals. When I began as a hospice chaplain in 2001, the first thing I did was get a cell phone. Now everyone has a “smart phone” and all kinds of connections to bring the patients soothing music or things that can comfort or distract. My cell phone allowed me to alert the patient or caregiver that I was in the area so they were prepared (perhaps their hair was combed or the door was opened). It also allowed me to call the office if an immediate update was necessary or there was a problem. When the hospice team was given the name and address of a new patient, we took out the maps, located the home and planned the best route to get to the home. Now, chaplains type in the address in their GPS and directions are given quickly.
There has been progress and change in some things but I feel that the experience of working as a supportive team is invaluable. It’s needed for patient and family as well as for the chaplain and caregivers. Experiences need to be processed and a sense of peace found.
As I prepared to leave the hospital one day, I received a message to bring a Bible to the Pediatric ICU room right near the nurses’ station. A minister was there to pray with the family of a 10-year-old boy who was dying. Entering the darkened room, I found the family was gathered around the bed. After standing in the sacred space for a while, I quietly said: “There was a request for a Bible.” A woman took it from me saying: “My Dad’s our minister. This is Joey, his grandson, and he’s dying.” She handed the Bible to an elderly gentleman who stood frozen near the bed. Again we stood in silence and I asked: “Does Joey have a favorite story or psalm?” The grandfather seemed to wake from a trance and read several passages from the Bible. Then silence descended again. I spoke softly: “Does he have a favorite hymn?” Everyone joined in singing several songs. The music was beautiful. It was a reverent prayer of all assembled.
Then the door opened and a teenage girl came in. The woman standing by the window immediately said: “You did this to him. You were always picking on him … pick, pick, pick. You said he stole your money.” The girl fled the room in tears. The father and I followed. The father held the girl and comforted her saying: “Grandma’s very upset and angry Joey’s so sick, and there’s nothing more the doctors can do. It’s not your fault, honey. It just hurts our hearts so much.” The father looked at me, and his eyes seemed to plead that I leave them and go back into the ICU room.
I found the grandmother also in tears. She was being held. There is little anyone can say other than: “It is so hard….” The family then told me about Joey and his illness.
When I went to the desk to note the visit, the staff said they had seen and heard what went on in the room and they were so thankful that I had been able to get the family to share, to pray and to sing. It was so important to them.
Another time I was passing a nurses’ station and already had my coat on ready to leave. The nurse said: “Barbara, the new hospice patient in Room 102, is fighting the medication and she’s in great pain. Could you try to talk to her?” Barbara would not make eye contact and she was crying. “I can’t feel God anymore” was her comment. I knelt by her side. She let me hold her hand and we began a dialogue about when her experience of God had been most intense. She spoke of her First Communion, the dress she wore, and the church she attended. Then she went through Confirmation experiences, her marriage, being a eucharistic minister and lector, and special verses of the Bible that were meaningful to her. It was obvious that the medication was working; the physical and spiritual pain was less. Barbara told me about her children and their experiences in church and things they said about God. She thanked me for bringing God alive again, and then asked me where I was supposed to go next. I told her I was going to my Mom’s house to take her food shopping. I think I’ll always remember her saying: “Patricia. Go to your Mom now. She’s waiting for you.”
There is one couple I think I will always remember. I visited them in their home for more than one year. Ray was declining slowly. They had become Mormons and wanted to share about their faith. Ray was a priest and he showed me his vestments and told me of the duties he had when he was well. I’m sure he felt good that he was still teaching people about what he believed. When the new Mormon Tabernacle opened in New York City, Ray gave me two tickets so my husband and I could see the house of worship. We did go and even visited another tabernacle when we were on vacation in Hawaii. Vividly I can remember our times sitting at the kitchen table, then later around the bed, and finally at Ray’s wake. Signs and symbols were important to this special couple.
Some people can openly share their faith, experiences and feelings. Others cannot do it easily. But some experiences can be so powerful that the people feel compelled to share it with someone they have come to trust. I had visited a 32-year-old woman dying of breast cancer. She worried about everyone: her three children, her husband who was a police officer and not able to express his feelings well, and her parents. Focusing on others made it easier when we first started talking. We did have enough time for her to get in touch with her own fears, anger and faith. The husband surprised me one day when his wife had slipped unconscious. He said he was driving to the hospital and was stuck at a light. He was thinking that he was not going to be able to handle his wife’s death. He happened to notice the license plates on the car ahead of him. The numbers were those of his wife’s phone number. When that car started to go, it was a sign for him that his wife had to move on … and he did, too. They both would be OK. He was a man who needed to find his own sign and symbol, but share it, too.
As a hospice chaplain, I have been blessed to be with people in unique and moving times.
Patricia Regan is a retired chaplain who lives with her husband, Thomas Regan, also a retired chaplain, in New York.