By Rev. Chidi Ogbuagu
During my return trip from Nigeria to the States on New Year’s Day 2021, I took time to reflect on my 20 years of chaplaincy ministry. Prevalent among the questions that popped up in my mind was, “What is my major contribution to patient care as a chaplain in those long years of ministry?” And I responded: Patient safety. I have often seen, as I believe many chaplains may have seen, that a joyful attitude and non-judgmental disposition create a much more enabling safe environment that promotes holistic care and recovery of patients and families.
When I was growing up in southeastern Nigeria, I observed that most people worked with joy and cheerfulness, notwithstanding the toughness of their work. That attitude has kept a lot of people safe and promoted their overall well-being. Right after my appendicitis surgery at age 10, while I was in excruciating pain, the nurse visited multiple times, carrying a glowing lantern amidst the darkness of the night and the whining sound of the mosquitos, to check on me. She held my hands, spoke gently to me, and reminded me of my post-op recovery directives: move gently, keep the surgery site clean, don’t scratch it, and drink clear liquids. The reason for those directives, she told me, was to ensure my safety and to enable quicker healing.
Although this incident happened about 40 years ago, I still vividly remember how the nurse compassionately, politely, and consistently conveyed her messages to me. Along with her medical knowledge, I believe that her positive attitude contributed to my overall safety during my stay at the hospital. Her soothing voice, constant checks on me, and patience with my many questions helped bring me quick healing and recovery.
As a chaplain, I followed the path of that nurse. I realized that the more I provided an active listening and consoling presence, the more that safety and healing can happen. Chaplains’ active presence brings consolation and strength to patients and families in their complex health situations. Although categorized among the ancillary or supportive services, chaplains form a substantial part of healthcare team that helps to promote patient safety programs.
Bringing a positive attitude to work undoubtedly contributes to patient safety. A chaplain’s positive attitude through active listening and compassion empowers patients to cooperate with the care team. Several times I was called to assist with a violent patient in order to de-escalate tension. We were able to calm the patient, leading to better communication about the goals of care.
I observed that when I, as a chaplain, show up with positive attitude to serve and make a difference in the life of a patient, it bolsters that patient’s safety. Through a decrease in stress level and more readily cooperating, the patient recovers and heals more quickly. Chaplains serve as bridges that connect physiological cure and psycho-spiritual healing. Whether one has religious questions, physical concerns, or a need to reflect or pray, chaplains will always be there.
Unfortunately, the perception still lingers of a disconnect between patient safety and ancillary services. This is partly because narratives, practice, and education around patient safety focus on medical/clinical issues. However, the National Institute of Health specifies, “Improving patient safety requires a multi-phased process, beginning with the detection of injuries and near misses and ending with a mechanism for ensuring that improvements in patient safety are maintained.”
Chaplains form part of that mechanism for ensuring that improvements in patient safety are maintained. We are closely connected with culture of safety at our workplaces, sharing with the interdisciplinary team the commitment to prevent failures and harm to patients and families. The positive attitude that chaplains bring to work is an essential element of this process and goes a long way toward bringing, promoting and sustaining holistic care and healing.
Rev. Chidiebere Evaristus Ogbuagu, BCC, is vice president of mission integration at Mercy Hospital, Miami, FL.