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All of us have spiritual needs regardless of our background or varying beliefs. Our spirituality affects our physical, mental and emotional well-being, and those needs are often at their greatest during times of medical or personal distress.
All of us, too, have the power to reveal God’s healing presence by being truly present for those around us. Across all SSM Health regions, we have employees who are specially trained to attend to the spiritual and emotional well-being of every person through care that is truly focused on the fullness of the person – the exceptional people who make up SSM Health pastoral care.
At SSM Health, our chaplains come from all walks of life. Some are ordained, but many others are lay people who have felt a call to minister to the spiritual needs of others. Joan Naraghi, pastoral care associate at SSM Health St. Mary’s Hospital - Centralia, began her professional life as a journalist, while Rev. Wendell Reese, chaplain at SSM Health Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital, spent 12 years working as an electronic engineer technician. It was only after a conversation with a chaplain at SSM Health St. Mary’s Hospital - St. Louis during a visit to see a hospitalized friend that Reese decided to change his career path.
“After learning of my passion for this ministry, he encouraged me to pursue spiritual care,” said Reese, who followed the call, sought the required education for certification, and has now been a chaplain for more than two decades.
Others, like chaplain Bill Simpson, pastoral care lead at St. Anthony Shawnee Hospital in Oklahoma, have taken a more traditional route.
“Ever since high school, I’ve sensed God’s call into vocational ministry of some sort,” Simpson said. “For the first 25 years or so, that was focused on full-time service as a music/worship pastor. I came to recognize that I found special fulfillment in walking with people through some of their most difficult times, and it became clear to me that hospital chaplaincy provided regular opportunities to do just that.”
No matter the path that leads to pastoral care, all chaplains are highly trained professionals.
“All of our full-time chaplains have a master’s degree, and many are certified by one of several accrediting bodies. This certification is a long process that usually takes several years,” said Peggy Van Gundy, System Director of Mission and Formation.
SSM Health chaplains are available around the clock in every SSM Health hospital. Across the system, there are full-time, part-time and PRN chaplains on staff to ensure spiritual and emotional support is available to all patients, their families and staff. They offer a listening presence; help in dealing with the powerlessness, pain and alienation that may come with a new diagnosis or ongoing hospitalization and seek to help patients find meaning and purpose out of their illness or experience; and they assist patients, their families and staff recognize and respond to God with greater joy, peace and hope.
“As representatives of God, we are entrusted to enter into the personal, vulnerable world of patients and families, with confidence that we are there for their spiritual and emotional support,” Reese said.
And indeed, SSM Health chaplains and pastoral counselors live out the Mission by offering their compassionate presence during some of the most vulnerable times in patients’ lives. “I regularly find myself with others in the middle of, perhaps, the biggest crisis of their lives,” Simpson said. “I am awed that people I’ve never met will allow me to walk with them through some of the most personal, most intimate, most vulnerable moments we, as humans, will encounter.”
The power of their presence is made up of a myriad of moments, big and small, across the system: the countless times a chaplain paused to truly listen or pray with a patient, helped guide a family through the grief process or helped mediate a stressful discussion; the countless times our employees who were able to provide better care to our patients because they had themselves received compassionate care from their chaplain during a time when they were struggling.
These are the moments in which God’s presence is revealed in a powerful and lasting way. Naraghi recounts one such moment, in which she had the opportunity to bring closure to a patient’s young adult son in a truly unforgettable memorial service:
“I had the fortune of developing a longer relationship with one patient due to his chronic illness. He did not have his own pastor, and for him, I took on this role,” Naraghi said. Through the months, this patient found peace with God and eventually asked Naraghi if she would serve at his funeral, since he knew it was coming soon. But when he passed away, she found that his family had made other arrangements.
“I didn’t mind at all, because funeral services are really best suited to serve the family and not the person who has passed away,” Naraghi said. “However, the next day, the patient’s young adult son came to see me, carrying the box of his father’s cremated ashes. He told me that his dad truly wanted me to be the one who spoke for him, and this young man had brought a ragtag group of teenage and young adult friends and relatives along. Immediately, I decided we would do an informal service right then – but at the time, our chapel was being remodeled. So, the first service that ever occurred in our newly remodeled chapel included me and a group of young people sitting cross-legged on the freshly carpeted floor, because there were no chairs yet. We shared memories of the patient, we laughed, we cried, and we prayed together. God surrounded us in those moments and used loving people in an empty chapel to bring healing and peace to that young man and his family.”
On one occasion, Simpson was paged to Labor and Delivery in the early hours of the morning and arrived to learn that a young mother, slightly more than halfway through her pregnancy, had just experienced the heartbreak of a twin fetal demise.
“I visited with her but didn’t stay long, as she was still recovering from the delivery and wasn’t yet ready to see her babies,” Simpson said. “As I left the room, I found her nurse working at a computer but using just one hand. She was holding the tiny, lifeless twins in her other arm. ‘I just didn’t want to leave them by themselves,’ she told me. I offered to hold them as she worked, and as I sat there, quietly holding those precious babies, this tender, caring nurse finally shared that this was her first experience with a fetal demise since joining our team.”
This is the power of presence; listening to and responding to the needs of those around you and being fully present in order to bring hope and healing in our patients’ darkest hours. And this is what our pastoral care team does best – not only for our patients, but also for our employees who give so much of themselves to care for those in need.
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