The Healing Connection

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Hospital Chaplains Are Here For Everyone


Years ago, the hospital chaplain was usually a member of the clergy summoned for end-of-life issues. The field once known as pastoral care has now evolved into spiritual care and the role and scope of hospital chaplains have evolved with it. Chaplains are an important part of the interdisciplinary patient care team who contribute to the improvement of the patient’s experience and well-being.
“We support people in hearing their own wisdom,” Dionne Blaha, Palomar Health’s Supervisor of Chaplains and Spiritual Care, shared with GB Magazine. “We do not look at people as broken, needing to be fixed; instead, we trust everyone has the resources they need to deal with their situation. In that sense, we are about connection: connecting each person with their own power, their own path and their best self.”
Dionne oversees a team of five chaplains at Palomar Health, as well as more than 60 volunteer on-call chaplains from all religious faiths. Chaplains do not make unsolicited patient visits. But all patients undergo a spiritual assessment when they are admitted and are made aware of their right to request a chaplain’s services. Collectively, these chaplains average 30,000 patient visits annually. To support Palomar Health’s diverse patient population, the chaplains – each with their own set of beliefs and traditions – strive to understand the belief systems and traditions of others and be respectful of them.
In 2020, the pandemic radically transformed the way chaplains performed their duties, requiring them to provide support and counsel by telephone. The intimate and personal nature of their work made this challenging, but they learned to improvise and adjust to the new dynamic. When the chaplains returned to the hospitals, they found that COVID-19 called for a new way of interacting with patients.
When a COVID patient is nearing end-of-life, family members and chaplains can be present but must remain in the hallway, separated from the patient by a glass door. “We stand in front of the glass and hold them as they cry. It is quite stirring, actually,” Dionne said. “It is very meaningful work for us because we can be there for them in their time of deepest grief.”

Chaplains do not just attend to the spiritual needs of patients. They are also an important spiritual resource for staff. This has been especially important during the pandemic, when caring for COVID patients can be especially intense and emotionally draining. Chaplain Sharon Ackerman recalled an encounter with nurses that illustrated the emotional toll COVID was taking on staff. “One day, as I was leaving a patient’s room, two nurses at a patient’s bedside asked me to pray for them,” Sharon recalled. “I told them, ‘Absolutely. You are in my prayers every day.’ It was their way of reminding us not to forget up them.”

Dionne hopes to change the perception of the chaplain’s role. She points out that they are perhaps most well-known for supporting patients and families through the stages of loss and death, but their emotional and spiritual support goes beyond that. “We need to shift the perspective that chaplains are only called on to support the patients or for religion-based concerns,” she stressed. “We are also here to support their family members. We are here to support their caregivers. We are here to support the medical staff and we are here to support every single employee. We are here for everyone.”

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Esteban Villanueva