How Working as a Hospital Chaplain Informed My Clinical Practice
Dec 17, 2019
Being present and connecting with patients can be difficult for any healthcare professional student. Sharada details her experiences as a hospital chaplain which has afforded her to better connect and to be present for her patients as she continues her medical career.
When I told my parents that I wanted to spend the summer after my first year of medical school in a hospital chaplaincy internship, they were confused, to say the least. Wouldn’t it be more productive to conduct scientific research, like most of my classmates, or review anatomy? But working with people experiencing depression, chronic illness, and the effects of poverty made me realize that I didn’t know how to be truly present with people in vulnerable moments, and I was missing opportunities to connect. If I really wanted to be the best doctor I could be, then I would have to learn how to sit with a patient’s suffering, just as I learned how to auscultate their lungs.
Being a chaplain is different from being a medical student, and I am very much a beginner in both disciplines. However, spending a summer in intense contact with patients taught me many things that were unnoticed and unsaid in my medical education, but still have a profound impact on caring for patients as human beings. Allow me to share my lessons with you.
I take myself with me into every patient encounter, whether I am conscious of it or not.
This sounds simple, but it’s true. Once given the opportunity and guidance to begin noticing, I could see that my nervousness, insecurities, and discomfort colored my every interpretation of patients’ actions. For example, if they were angry, I assumed they were angry at me. Then I might react with defensiveness, or more nervousness—but this wasn’t productive. It wasn’t necessarily even a true reflection of the space I had entered. In order to be truly present with the patient as they were, rather than being caught up in my own feelings, I had to be mindful of what I projected onto them, and set that aside. Even taking the space to pause and breathe can make a world of difference to everyone in the room.
To be present for others, I have to ground myself in compassion for people where they are, not where I want them to be.
This one was particularly difficult for me to come to terms with. Aren’t we here to help people, to make things better? As a chaplain, the meaning of ‘help’ became more ambiguous. Was an encounter where I comforted a crying young woman a success? Did that mean an encounter where the patient was not comforted was a failure? Should I be aiming to comfort above all? This felt wrong to me—jumping to wipe away a patient’s tears disregards the very real grief and loss that they are experiencing, even though it’s in the benevolent name of wishing things were different. I care very deeply about what happens to patients, but I can’t control that. I don’t have control over how they feel, and in fact, I often don’t know what would be best for them. I can only direct my care to where people are in the moment.
I am here to care for patients, for my fellow caregivers, and also to care for myself.
We are all struggling somehow. It’s difficult to be sensitive all the time, and tempting not to be when you’re struggling yourself. But in reality, the work of caring that we are committed to as future medical professionals isn’t confined to our professional lives. As difficult as it is, caring might be the most important thing we can give to others in our community, and to ourselves. I’ve been surprised by how I can touch a peer just by reaching out and checking in—and if I’m the one who’s sinking, how powerful it is to know that I am not alone.
Healthcare is a stressful field; what we know and the decisions we make could be life or death for patients. I strongly believe we should feel the burden of this responsibility. As a chaplain, however, I wasn’t making treatment decisions, or even interviewing patients. I wore a badge that said “chaplain”, but really, I was just me, sitting in the hospital room. In the face of cancer diagnoses and fetal demises and suicide attempts, what could I do for anyone?
Let me end this article by telling you what my supervisor told me.
"You are enough."
Your presence, your attention, and your sensitivity to the pain of others provide healing. These may seem small or unimportant, because you didn’t go to school to learn them, because you were never graded nor awarded for them. Sometimes these parts of you are tested – sometimes you are not exactly who you’d want to be. Sometimes you can think of that person who would have been perfect for the situation in which you find yourself – but they aren’t there. You are.
You are not perfect. But you are enough.
Often the simplest truths need time and space to take root, and that is what chaplaincy gave to me. I hope these lessons serve you well, as they’ve served me.
Sharada is a 2nd year student at UC Berkeley-UCSF Joint Medical Program. She grew up in Massachusetts, but is now a Californian through and through. Her interests in medicine include geriatrics and palliative care, but she's keeping an open mind. In her free time, she enjoys sleeping, writing, and reading fantasy novels.