By Laura Lovejoy
“So, where are you from?” I asked. The patient was clearly suspicious of my presence. I thought some casual conversation might help. He mentioned the name of his town, adding, “I don’t suppose you know where that is, do you?”
But in fact I did know his hometown, several hundred miles away. When to his surprise, I mentioned something distinctive about his town, he lit up as if to say I had passed the test. And he began the story of his illness and what ultimately led him to seek care here, so far away from home.
“So, where are you from?” is likely the most common question to be heard around Mayo Clinic. Staff ask it of patients and patients ask it of staff, with the presumption that everyone is from somewhere else. While that is not true, it is a fact that many patients have traveled a distance to be here. Some come for a second opinion, some because they would never go anywhere else, some because this is their last resort.
Mayo Clinic is known as a medical mecca, drawing people from all walks of life and all parts of the globe to the cornfields of southeast Minnesota in the hopes that someone here can help them. In large numbers and in all conditions, they come and take the first steps toward unraveling their medical mysteries. Usually they go through tests and consultations; often they have treatments or therapy or surgery. And sometimes they meet with a chaplain.
Her dementia was advanced and she no longer recognized her husband, but through her family I knew she was a woman of deep faith. I held her hand and talked to her, hoping some word of comfort might reach her. And when I started the Lord’s Prayer, she joined in word for word. Though her connection to the world had faltered, her connection to God remained.
As hospitals recognize the need to care for the whole person, they are increasingly turning to trained, permanent chaplaincy staffs to help address the spiritual needs of patients. Chaplains function as a part of the medical team. They attend rounds, respond to referrals from the medical staff, and contribute to care conferences. They know where to find a basin for the patient who is throwing up and a gown for the patient who needs a clean one.
But first and foremost, their calling remains that of a minister: comforting, encouraging, listening, praying, and serving as a reminder of God’s presence and love in even the darkest moments of life.
He knew he was dying. It would be only a few weeks. He had pain, but what hurt more were memories from long ago. He needed the chance to talk, cry, be angry, and forgive. Over the course of several days, through prayer and Scripture and through God’s healing, he was finally able to let go of the bitterness inside him and be at peace.
Our initial contact with a patient is often at their request or through a referral from a staff member, but sometimes we simply go from room to room, checking in with patients to see how they are doing. Some patients are content with a few minutes of time and a prayer; for others that small inquiry serves as the threshold to their deepest cares and fears.
What flows forth ranges from the grief of bad news to the anxiety of no news; from the amazement that their life should have come to this, to the acceptance that this day was bound to come. Away from home and away from the familiar, they will often open up to us because we have time to listen and, no doubt, because they feel safe talking to a chaplain they will never see again. But just as they are able to say things they may not have said before, they are also often able to hear things they may not have heard before: about God’s mercy, forgiveness, and love.
The family was gathered in the conference room as the doctors gave the grim prognosis. Now it was up to the family to make the difficult decision: to let nature finish what it had started or to try everything to sustain the young woman, knowing she would never regain consciousness and would live out her days in a nursing home.
“I’m so sorry; I wish there were something else we could do,” the primary doctor told them as he and his colleagues left to give the family time to make its choice.
Amid hugs and muffled sobs, we went through the questions. What would she want? Why did God let this happen? What does God want us to do now? There were far more questions than answers, but one question had to be answered. We prayed together, asking for God’s mercy and wisdom in the midst of so much pain.
The young woman’s mother reached across and laid her hand on her son-in-law’s arm. “We’ve said what we need to say. It’s up to you, and we’ll honor whatever you decide.” He paused and then he nodded at me to get the doctors.
Our care is not limited to patients. We offer support to loved ones, through formal support groups and informal contacts in patient rooms and waiting rooms. In the emergency room and the ICUs, it is most often the family who needs our ministry. We are able to be with them when they are asked to make decisions, when they are faced with the reality that the patient will not be the same as before, when injury or illness are beyond what medicine can reverse. And we are there if and when the time comes to let their loved one go.
It was 6:30 in the morning. The medical student was clearly anticipating a boring two hours following me as I visited patients preparing for surgery. Our visits were short, just time for a word of comfort and a prayer. But over and over, as I introduced myself as the chaplain, the look of anxiety in faces would be replaced by relief and appreciation.
“Thank you so much for coming,” greeted us regularly. In between visits, the medical student expressed his surprise that people would so readily open up to us and that our few moments could bring them peace.
Our work expands beyond the boundaries of pastoral care. We provide education to staff and students. Chaplains are involved in teaching at the medical school, at continuing education seminars, and at state and national conferences. We conduct research on spiritual care interventions and we serve on numerous committees throughout the hospital and clinic. As our director likes to say, “We care for the soul of the institution.”
The 400-seat chapel was filled. People stood along the walls and spilled out into the hallway. The same scene was duplicated in other sites around campus. In all these locations staff gathered together, the horror and disbelief of the 9/11 terrorist attacks new and painful. Through prayer and song, we offered them a place to find solace in their faith and in one another.
For some time, when asked about our “care for the soul of the institution,” it was hard to clearly define what we meant. But after September 11, and on many occasions since, we have had the opportunity to live out that mission.
We have given support to hurting nurses and doctors as they cared for patients who were also colleagues, and comforted staff grieving the loss of those in their care. We have provided crisis debriefing sessions for those times when tragedy threatens to overwhelm those who work in the midst of it every day. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, we sent chaplains along with the medical personnel who traveled to the Gulf Coast. Our hope always is to represent God’s care for those who are caregivers.
“Come to pediatrics, quick!” the nurse said. I prepared myself for the worst. His chemo had gone well. What could have happened? I walked into the darkened room to see the boy lying in his bed. He motioned me to come close and, when I did, he emptied half a can of Silly String on me! He was being discharged with a good prognosis and he was celebrating by spraying every staff person he saw! Who could blame him? What a delight to see him laugh and enjoy life.
Not all that we do is difficult and sad. We also take part in the good things that happen in the hospital.
We rejoice with biopsy results that are benign, surgeries that are successful, and labors that result in healthy babies. We provide prayer to dedicate the opening of new patient care rooms; we regularly lead worship services for patients and staff. We get to see people get better and go home, often with a new appreciation for life and a deeper sense of God’s love and presence.
People often tell me I have a difficult job, but the opposite is true. Day in and day out, I get to marvel at what God is able to bring about in the lives of his people.
Chaplain Laura Lovejoy serves as chaplain for Mayo Clinic and its affiliated hospitals in Rochester, Minnesota. She attends Meadow Park Church of Christ in Rochester.