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Spiritual Care in the Hospital

Special to the Journal By Rev. Tim Dean and Rev. Christopher Szarke


Hospital patients are sometimes surprised to learn that a hospital chaplain may be part of the team of professionals involved in their care and support. Spiritual care in the hospital setting is rooted in the understanding that our beliefs and values can profoundly affect the way in which we cope with illness and its treatment. This view is recognized by The Joint Commission, which accredits more than 20,000 health-care organizations in this country and requires that hospitals offer support for the spiritual needs of their patients in addition to providing physical care.


What is the role of a hospital chaplain?

Our role is to assess a patient’s needs and determine how we can provide meaningful support to patients, families, and loved ones. Hospital chaplains approach people without a distinct agenda of our own. Rather, ours is a ministry of accompaniment. We seek to establish a connection, not necessarily to us as clergy, but more deeply to the patient’s own resources. Hospitalization can be quite disorienting, and by helping patients connect to their own sources of strength while in the hospital they tend to feel more grounded.


How does tending to spiritual needs impact healing?

We don’t know for certain just how spiritual practice influences the healing process. However, if you think about spirituality as anything that gives a person meaning, purpose, and a sense of well-being, then it becomes easier to see the connection between physical health and emotional health. In the hospital setting spiritual care is about supporting emotional health and reducing stress and anxiety, all of which encourages healing. But healing isn’t always physical. It may also include reconciliation, interpreting matters of the spirit, and being at peace with one’s life.


What if I am not a religious person?

Spirituality is not necessarily about religion, though religious beliefs and rituals are some of the ways people experience and express their spirituality. As hospital chaplains we try to lean in, to seek an understanding of what a patient is experiencing. This can be a deeply humanizing experience. It helps people feel honored and valued and may not have anything to do with a specific religious belief or culture.


How do I make my wishes known about spiritual care in the hospital?

Any staff person can make a referral to the chaplains upon request. In addition, when patients are admitted to the hospital they are asked to rate how important a chaplain visit is during their hospital stay. Some feel a visit is very important, while others do not want a visit at all. This input, along with participation in daily rounds and staff feedback, guides us.


How do you help people who hold very different beliefs?

We routinely encounter people from many different religious traditions and cultures. We aren’t experts in all faiths. Part of our role is to remain curious and to encourage people to share their beliefs. In this way, we can learn about what holds value for them. And often by speaking about their beliefs to us, patients can begin to help themselves. We can also aid patients by helping them connect with a clergyperson from their own faith practice.


Hospitals can be very scary places. The hospital chaplains at Cayuga Medical Center want to welcome people with respect and in ways that give and restore dignity. We function as advocates for our patients to help ensure that their values are understood and honored by the staff. Our goal is to offer a calm presence of support, respect, and generous hospitality to people of all faith traditions and to help however we can as patients and families navigate what is ahead.


Reverend Tim Dean, director of Spiritual Care, and Reverend Christopher Szarke, are chaplains on staff at Cayuga Medical Center. They are assisted in their work by Reverend Kate O’Neal on Saturdays. Chaplains are on-call for emergencies at all times and can be reached through the medical center’s switchboard at (607) 274-4011.

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