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What I did in the summer... Hospital Chaplaincy

Friday, February 06, 2015

The bread and butter issues in life are what really matter, not so much the added extras. At least, that is what I took from my student placement this summer when I spent four weeks on a hospital chaplaincy placement in London. The NHS hospital where I was a chaplaincy assistant provides advanced medical care to patients from London and other regions of England; indeed patients even come from abroad for specialist care at the various surgical units. As with most hospitals in the UK, health care is free at the point of care, patients from all backgrounds are treated, and a wide range of health care is undertaken, from brain surgery and advanced cancer treatment to healing of broken bones.

The Catholic chaplain offers pastoral care to patients who declare themselves as Catholic, and administers the sacraments of the Church to those who request them. All Catholic patients have a right to see a Catholic Chaplain, but it is important that either the patient or relatives make sure it is known they are of Catholic denomination. As a non-ordained assistant, I was content to help the Chaplain in any way that I could. The fact is that some patients or their relatives will just need a priest, and that he is the only person who can help provide for their religious needs. So, my normal day was assisting the Chaplain to visit patients who declared their religion as Catholic, and to find out what their pastoral needs were. I was also an Extraordinary Minister, bringing Holy Communion to those able to receive.

The most moving moments during my placement were at the start and at the end. On my first day, I went alongside one of the priests who was paged to go to the critical care ward, to visit a patient who was near to death. The priest went to anoint an old man who had that distinctive grey-faced look of someone close to death. Seeing someone anointed was quite a moving experience that of course reminds me of my own mortality, and of those who have died that I have known. There was also another Catholic patient the priest visited, a woman who had only a matter of days to live. Her son and daughter at her bedside were somewhat lost in what they should do or say. There was nothing I could do, just pray alongside the Priest who anointed the dying woman with holy oils and gave viaticum – the final Eucharist for the journey – and the apostolic pardon. What did I take from a situation like that? The bread and butter issues are preparing for a crucial moment in life such as the death of a close relative, or indeed our own death.

My summer placement was educational for me, and was done in such a way that I felt protected rather than being thrown in at the deep end. I was, most of the time, just an observer or someone for patients to talk to or to say some prayers with. As I mentioned previously, the first and last days of my hospital placement were the most memorable. On the last day of my placement, I was going around the wards as an Extraordinary Minister, and talking to patients in the hospital just like most other days. As planned, I went to visit a woman whom I had seen a few times before, as she was on the list of Catholic patients. Strangely, she had been moved from one part of the ward to another and the entire section was being deep-cleaned. All the hospital beds, chairs and equipment had been moved out. That was the first strange moment in the day, as I had to search around the ward to see where she had been moved. Eventually I found her on the other side of the ward, and I could tell there was some deterioration since my previous visit. When I went to her bedside, she was with a relative and said she was very tired and did not have the energy to receive Holy Communion. I was almost ready to move on to visit the next patient when something within me made me stay for a few extra minutes. So I stayed, reassured her that I would pray beside her and not to worry about being tired. I said an Our Father and a Hail Mary, and prayed that her suffering may be alleviated and that she find peace. Then I went on my way back to the hospital chapel, went to Mass, then got some lunch. Back in the office, the Catholic Chaplain received an emergency call to say the woman I had visited an hour or so ago, had died very suddenly. 

There are many things involved in hospital chaplaincy that are perhaps less-discussed, or kept between the priest and the patient or their family. You never really know what is going to be on the other side of that door, what emergency call the Chaplain will get next, or indeed if the patient you saw an hour ago has died suddenly without warning. It was, however, quite amazing the reaction that I saw whilst giving Holy Communion to many patients. Sometimes after receiving Holy Communion they would sit quietly saying nothing, just filled with the joy and security that the Eucharist had brought them. On other occasions some burst into tears. One of the main tasks of a hospital chaplain seems to be a friendly interest and concern for the patients. More than a matter of kind smile and sympathetic matter, it involves listening to what the patient is saying. And there are of course certain aspects of the role that only come with experience, such as knowing when to leave the bedside, when to stay a bit longer and say some extra prayers, perhaps recognising when someone is not facing the medical reality of their condition, or the fact that what they have might be terminal. The bread and butter issues in life have a tendency to surface very quickly, and displace the ‘added extras’ like worrying about which carpet should be purchased for the living room, when you receive news that you only have a few weeks to live.

As for my role in future hospital chaplaincy, watch this space. It is clear to me that priests are needed for the core roles involved, and we cannot provide chaplains without the donations and prayers of our readers and the benefactors of the Order. 

 - Br Luke Doherty, O.P.


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