By Eric J. Hall
A man walks into a hospital room. He has come from another part of the country to visit a life-long friend who is being treated for a serious illness. When the man in the bed sees his friend, he smiles, feeling his spirits lift for the first time since being admitted to the hospital three days ago.
After they talk for a while the visitor recognizes that his friend, while getting the best possible medical care, is not getting the kind of whole person care he needs. He seems depressed and anxious about his future health. His physician asks about his physical condition, checks his sutures and breathing, looks for any swelling, but never looks him in the eye or takes the time to inquire about his emotional state. Other hospital staff enter the room to check vital signs, adjust the window shade, or deliver a tray of food. Some, just being polite, ask "How are you feeling today?" while carrying on with their chores, not really expecting to engage in conversation about how the patient really feels. The patient, too, may hesitate to express his feelings to anyone he senses is just being polite and not really interested in hearing about his pain or feelings.
Had this been a hospital in California, a palliative care team would be assigned to meet the physical, medical, psychosocial, emotional, and spiritual needs of the patient and family. The department of health services there requires such care and they recommend the team include a professional health care chaplain, along with registered nurse, social worker, and physician. Palliative care is specialized medical care that focuses on providing relief from the symptoms as well as the stress of a serious illness. It helps the patient gain the strength to carry on with daily life and improve the quality of life.
When you are in a hospital with a severe illness or injury your spirit needs care just as much as your body does. Too often in the health care system those providing expert care for treating our bodies may have little time or expertise in how to help improve our spirit. We need to talk about total wellbeing, or complete medical treatment, which includes fixing the body, but also providing relief for the troubled spirit.
Often a chaplain is considered only if somebody wants a religious consult, but professional health care chaplains are trained to help people, primarily those who are ill, identify where they want to go, not where the doctors or their families, think they should go. These professionals are trained to listen to you in your time of crisis, and also to hear what you leave unsaid. This is the art of presence. Health care chaplains are trained to be present for any person or any faith, or of no faith. They want to be with the patient where they are at that moment.
Advances in science and technology have provided unique tools for medical care, but often health care providers are more attuned to the science than the human condition. While the body may be stabilized or healing, the patient may be highly anxious, depressed or scared. And in our fast-paced high tech world of digital communication, we may be speeding past the point of human contact. You notice it just walking down a city street where half the people passing by are looking at their cell phones, and not noticing anything else. If a rainbow suddenly appeared they would miss it!
The man who came to visit his friend wanted to know how he was feeling physically, but more so, how his feelings were. Perhaps we need to change the question and start asking how are your "feelings" today?