By Michele Le Doux Sakurai
As I headed to the last room at the end of the hall, I was stopped by the nurse. “That patient is a pastor and has had pastors and parishioners in and out all day. He is well supported and won’t need a chaplain.” It was late in the day, and I decided to wait.
The next day, while I was getting coffee in the oncology unit’s hospitality room, the patient’s wife approached me. “You’re the chaplain for the cancer patients, aren’t you? Please visit my husband. He is only 42, and the prognosis isn’t good. He is struggling with why God is doing this to him, and he can’t speak of his doubts to any of his clergy friends or community members. If you visit, please wait until everyone has left. Otherwise, he won’t feel free to speak.”
The patient’s visitors left at the dinner hour, and I knocked on his door. After I introduced myself, I asked if it was a good time, and he said yes. He spoke of dedicating his life to God, and he couldn’t understand how God could allow him to get this awful disease. He had a wife and three small children. Who would take care of them if he died? Where was God in these moments of fear and despair? Such thoughts would make him a pariah in his faith tradition. He feared that if his colleagues and church members knew his fears, he would die alone.
This patient lies at the heart of what chaplains do best. The nurse assumed that since he was visited by other pastors and parishioners, he had the support he needed. This nurse, like many other team members, will assess a patient’s spiritual needs and make the needed referrals. But sometimes, as in this case, the nurse did not have the tools to accurately evaluate a patient.
This is not atypical. Many nurses, and other team members, don’t know or care to know about chaplaincy. I spoke with a family member whose father was in the hospital for six weeks after a traumatic auto accident. Their pastor visited a couple of times, but she complained to me that no chaplain visited. She was overwhelmed and didn’t know what was available at the time. There was no nurse or team referral for her. I have worked with my share of nursing supervisors who would never refer to a chaplain, and I have worked with nurses who believed that all chaplains do is pray.
One nurse even told me that, at a painful and difficult death, she ordered the chaplain out. She had bonded with the patient, and she said, “I’ll handle this! He’s mine!” But later, after her shift, she sat in an outdoor natural setting and felt overpowered by her own feelings. She never considered for a moment that the chaplain could be a source of consolation for her.
Our local Catholic university requires all nursing students to take “Theological Dimensions of Suffering and Death,” and I am privileged to be on the team that teaches this class. I have the unique opportunity to help nursing students understand what chaplains do, as well as the importance of a chaplain on the team.
As you look at your ministry, what do nurses need to know about chaplaincy for you to better serve your patients? Are there biases or prejudices that become barriers to your ministry? If you had the opportunity to educate nurses while they were training, what would be the most important thing for them to know? How does your institution train your nurses about chaplaincy – through employee orientation, mission meetings, department meetings, etc.? Please send your stories, insights, and needs to this email address. I will be happy to take your wisdom and suggestions and provide an article that can be shared with the entire NACC.
Michele Le Doux Sakurai, BCC, has spent 27 years in chaplaincy. She has retired from hospital chaplaincy and is now providing educational support.