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Hospital Chaplains Work on Healing the Soul

Above: Palomar Hospital Chaplain Richard Gonzalez enjoys checking in with patients.

Audio

Aired 4/23/09

Modern medicine can perform miracles. But it can't offer spiritual guidance or emotional support when a person is sick or dying. While doctors and nurses work to cure the body, hospital chaplains try to heal the soul.

— Modern medicine can perform miracles. But it can't offer spiritual guidance or emotional support when a person is sick or dying. While doctors and nurses work to cure the body, hospital chaplains try to heal the soul. KPBS Health Reporter Kenny Goldberg has the story.

It's mid-morning in the emergency room at Palomar Hospital in Escondido. Chaplain Richard Gonzalez checks on the condition of a heart attack patient. A nurse says the patient's barely hanging on.

"So he's basically with us," says the nurse, "And we're working him to the fullest abilities of our talents, and hoping for the best outcome possible. "Okay," Richard Gonzalez says. "Thank you very much."

Gonzalez can't talk to the patient right now. He is eager to comfort the man's family.

"We minister to the whole family," says Gonzalez, "Because, you know, when there's an emergency the family starts showing up. And we're ready for that.

Whether it's in the emergency room, or upstairs in the intensive care unit, Gonzalez and his team of chaplains are ready to help. They offer words of encouragement, support, and prayer for people in crisis.

In hospitals these days, doctors and nurses don't have much time to sit and talk with patients.

ER director Cathy Prante says chaplains deal with areas of patient care that medical professionals don't usually attend to.

"Human beings aren't just their physical pain, they aren't just their physical symptoms," Prante says. "They're emotional beings, they're psychosocial beings, they're spiritual beings. And chaplains enhance our ability to provide care for the whole person."

Patients' spiritual needs are taken seriously in hospitals. In fact, the national organization that accredits hospitals says each patient has the right to have their spiritual beliefs respected.

Patients are asked to express their preferences when they're admitted.

Hospital chaplains are trained to tailor their messages appropriately.

For example, with Christians, Chaplain Gonzalez emphasizes the New Testament. With Jewish patients, he concentrates on other areas.

"But if you're ministering to a person that just claims to be non-religious, or may even call themselves an atheist, then you have to break ground on those kinds of cases," says Gonzalez. "And sometimes, just being a friend to them is chaplaincy work."

"So I hope that you'll be recovering soon from your kidney stone problems," says Gonzalez. I'm trying," the patient responds. "Ha, ha, good," says Gonzalez. "Have you had a lot of those in the past?"

Gonzalez is a good listener. He likes to get up close to patients and put his arm around their shoulders, or give them a hug.

Gonzalez is trained as a Baptist minister. He frequently offers to pray with patients, in either Spanish or English.

"I just want to lift you up in praise," Gonzalez prays, "As she is recovering from this illness, Lord…"

Dr. Keyvan Esmaeili oversees Palomar Hospital's acute rehabilitation unit.

"In my opinion," Esmaeli says, "Prayers are wonderful. It's wonderful to have spiritual guidance and just be able to have spiritual support while you're in the hospital."

ER director Cathy Prante says chaplains don't only attend to patients. They also provide a lot of support to staff.

"We see tragedy day in and day out," says Prante. "Significant amounts of loss, and they help our staff process, be able to come back to work the next day, to provide meaning to their work, provide understanding, give them some peace."

Chaplain Gonzalez believes there will always be a need to offer some peace to people in hospitals, no matter how sophisticated medicine becomes.

"Because people have a spirit, given to them by the Lord, and we need to nurture that," Gonzalez says. "And we need to pay attention to the spirit that is within us. So there's always going to be a role for chaplains."

The American Hospital Association says nationwide in 2007, two out of three hospitals had a chaplaincy or pastoral care program.

"Well, you're making progress in your recovery, I hope," says Gonzalez. "I'm hoping to go home today. I love you to pieces, but I was hoping you were a doctor," a patient responds. "We have the same goal in mind," says Gonzalez. "We want you to get home as quickly as possible." "I'm ready to go home, yes I am," says the patient.

Kenny Goldberg, KPBS News.

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