My Time AS A Hospital Chaplain

Recently my granddaughter Claire suggested I do a post on hospital chaplaincy. It got me to reflecting on that period of my life. I did my training at Holy Cross Hospital in Silver Spring, Maryland and then worked at Georgetown Hospital in DC. All this was in the 1980’s.

Looking back I can not remember any lightbulb moment that immediately drew me to chaplaincy. Our five children were getting older, I was starting to have a little more free time and I wanted to have a plan for that free time. I had loved my nursing experience – perhaps that was a hint of the direction I should be looking. Then I read about the chaplaincy training program at Holy Cross and felt confident that this was the avenue I should explore. I knew that I would feel at home in the hospital environment and I knew from my Cornell days the significant role that could be played by a caring hospital chaplain.

Monsignor James Wilder was the main chaplain at Cornell / New York Hospital in my student days. He and I became good friends. I had many opportunities to witness his kindness and his caring. When Jerry and I were married a year and a half after graduation we asked the Monsignor to be the celebrant at our wedding. My brother Bud who was studying for the priesthood was also part of the ceremony but since he was not yet ordained he could not be the official celebrant.

I started the training at Holy Cross in early Fall of 1980. ( Our son Jim was born at Holy Cross Hospital in 1966 – that made it even more special to be going there for chaplaincy training.) It was a new program at Holy Cross and the training class was limited in size . We were a mixture of lay men and women and religious Brothers and Sisters. I enjoyed the classes and the on floor training experience. And then we started a learning experience that some of my classmates had already experienced in their college days. I had not and it was tough. The specific name I can’t remember, but I can easily describe it. As I look back I believe there were eight of us in this class whose purpose was to make us aware that the words we use might mean one thing to us and something very different to our audience. This is a basic concept of communication that as we grow and develop becomes more apparent. It certainly was woven into the fabric of my nurse’s training. And now even more so into the pastoral care training where it was emphasized – that listening and talking were two of our most valuable tools. The basic structure of the class was to focus on individual members and their various sharings. You never knew when it was going to be your turn.

And then my turn came in the last class before Thanksgiving break 1980. I got there early, along with the facilitator and several of my classmates. I remember wondering who would be “picked on” that day. There was social chit chat while we waited for the rest to arrive. A classmate with whom I was particularly friendly asked me what my family was doing for Thanksgiving. I launched into how excited I was for the holiday, that it would be the first time we would be seeing our son since he started college, that we also would also be gathering with my brother and his family. And then the facilitator started class. After getting some administrative stuff out of the way she turned to me and said, ” I was really upset by your Thanksgiving conversation”. She then proceeded to say her college daughter was not coming home for the holiday, that she and her husband were so disappointed. She wanted to know if I thought everyone had happy holiday plans. The facilitator said that she knew my Thanksgiving remarks were in response to a question that I was asked, but that in working with patients we must always be aware of our words and of the possible frame of reference of the receiver of those words. In spite of the fact that I felt like I had been hit with a verbal sledge hammer it was a point well made.

A happy memory that stands out from this time was the intimate celebration when training was complete and Catholic Hospital Chaplaincy certification was obtained. My husband was in Japan on business but our daughter Maura, at that time a senior in high school, said that she wanted to come and represent the family. It meant the would be missing a day of school but she was such a good student that missing a day was not an issue. I was touched and honored that she wanted to be there.

At that time Georgetown Hospital was looking for lay chaplains and I applied and got one of those positions. I loved my work at Georgetown. It was thirty five plus years ago so I don’t remember my actual dates of employment but it was under two years. Why did I leave a job that I loved? It was because they started requiring the lay staff to rotate working nights and weekends. I gave it a try but I was a very sleepy failure. When I would go home after a night rotation, if the kids were not in school or if Jerry was at home, I wanted to be up with them rather than get my much needed sleep. Summertime was particularly bad. I wanted to be with my family. I sadly but realistically gave my letter of resignation.

What did I love about Georgetown? In nursing sometimes your patient load was so great you could not spend as much time as you liked with each patient. That was seldom the case with chaplaincy. A patient who stands out in my memory was a woman in her 80’s – the age that I am now. She was a retired reporter for the Washington Post. It had been a very successful career for her and when retirement came she was not prepared for it. She had lots of friends but most of those friends were themselves in questionable health. She had no family. In chaplaincy some visits were spiritually focused, some were to provide a caring, listening presence for a lonely patient. She fell into the later category. I was happy that we connected, that she felt she could share her concerns with me.

In both nursing and in chaplaincy and in life it is important to keep the needs of others in proper perspective. It is impossible to be a source of comfort and meaningful help to others if you let yourself be overcome by the tough times they are going through. Sometimes I found it hard to maintain that empathy balance. My husband’s law partner’s wife was a patient at Georgetown during my tenure. They had four young children and she was dying of pancreatic cancer. She and I were very good friends. I had a hard time being a meaningful source of comfort to her family.

I was working at Georgetown on January 28, 1986 when the space shuttle Challenger broke apart just shortly after take off. That morning was particularly busy for me. When I was moving between floors sometimes I took the stairs , sometimes the elevator. This was an elevator day. I pressed the buzzer and waited. When the elevator doors opened I heard the sound of crying. When I got on the elevator – everyone was crying – some softly, some loudly. The person next to me, realizing my confusion, whispered -” It is the space shuttle Challenger – it has crashed – there are no survivors”. I also cried.

It was in an earlier blog that I spoke of my friendship with Sister Jean . She was a fellow chaplain at Georgetown. Her softness, her kindness, her unassuming manner were her trademarks. When I left Georgetown we maintained our friendship. When she died I was devastated but comforted by the standing room only crowd at her funeral. The professional staff and housekeeping were all equally represented. Jean had touched many lives!!!

In my last days at Georgetown I reflected on how grateful I was for my time there but realistic that I just could not cope with the mandate to work evenings and nights. I would take away with me many learnings. I had seen first hand the courage of those facing death; the fears of those facing death; the resilience of those on losing a loved one. I prayed that I had been some source of comfort to those who had allowed me to share in their most vulnerable moments.

It is important in all stages of life to be honest about our individual capabilities. I had come to know so many wonderful people – both staff and patients – but it was time for me to move on.

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