Hospital chaplains: Supporting the journey

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  • Kootenai Health’s chapel is open 24/7. (Photo by Andrea Nagel)

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    Kootenai Health chaplains Jennifer James and Paul Weil give spiritual and emotional support to patients, families, staff and providers. In addition to helping during health crises, hospital chaplains perform weddings, bless babies, and arrange the occasional party. (Photo by Andrea Nagel)

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    William Christopher who played TV chaplain Father Mulcahy of M*A*S*H wasn’t too far from the real thing. (Imdb)

  • Kootenai Health’s chapel is open 24/7. (Photo by Andrea Nagel)

  • 1

    Kootenai Health chaplains Jennifer James and Paul Weil give spiritual and emotional support to patients, families, staff and providers. In addition to helping during health crises, hospital chaplains perform weddings, bless babies, and arrange the occasional party. (Photo by Andrea Nagel)

  • 2

    William Christopher who played TV chaplain Father Mulcahy of M*A*S*H wasn’t too far from the real thing. (Imdb)

Coeur Voice writer

Say “chaplain,” and many of a certain age think of the affable Father John Mulcahy on TV’s M*A*S*H, back in the ‘70s.

That’s good, according to Paul Weil, chaplain at Kootenai Health. Whether he was trying to keep the peace between doctors or ministering to patients, Father Mulcahy’s main role was to serve. “It’s not a bad image of a chaplain,” Weil said, “in a sense that every chaplain comes to their job out of a spiritual tradition.”

After working in the administrative end of patient care for many years, including the role of executive director for both Bonner Community Hospice and Hospice of North Idaho, Weil accepted the position as chaplain at Kootenai Health three years ago.

In essence, a chaplain’s job is to support and serve patients and families.

Sometimes, that means figuring out how to get a patient’s dog into the hospital for a visit. Other times, it’s praying with them, or support during those difficult end-of-life decisions.

And sometimes, patients are angry with God and need to express that. Chaplains can help them decide what to do with that anger, and then move forward.

“From my experience, the image of God as a loving parent is a good one because I’ve found God to have pretty big shoulders, and can take it,” said Weil, who has a master’s in pastoral ministry. “It’s really amazing what can happen after the person voices (their anger), and then there can be some immense healing that takes place afterwards. We hope we’re a good place to do that.”

A licensed counselor and manager of Chaplain Services, Jennifer James came to Kootenai Health 16 years ago. She defines the chaplain’s role as providing emotional and spiritual support for the families, patients, staff, and providers of Kootenai Health.

Chaplains can help patients and their families explore some of the bigger questions they’re facing when dealing with a difficult diagnosis or a long hospital stay.

But the biggest question is always, “Why?”

“In the world of chaplaincy, what we accept is that there’s something bigger than us,” Weil said. “There’s something bigger than our mind working in whatever situation we’re in. Sometimes we don’t always understand it.”

Part of Weil’s training was at the Zen Hospice Project, a non-profit in San Francisco where he studied the contemplative practice of caregiving - being present to yourself and through that presence to yourself, how that creates a deeper connection to the people you’re serving. Zenhospice.org defines their mission as inspiring one another to live fully through creating a space (for individuals and caregivers) to find comfort, connection, and healing. \\

That includes erasing presumptions.

“When we’re working with individuals,” Weil said, “we come at each other with preconceived ideas of either how a person should be or how a person should think. We need to approach each person as an individual and come to them in a spirit of openness.”

Chaplains work with patients in spiritual distress - spiritual pain and existential questioning that occurs when someone encounters a life-changing event. Patients often feel as though they’ve been left alone.

“I think it can be an amazing blessing because it forces us to look at what we believe and what’s really important to (the individual),” James said. “That’s often something that we’re helping with. Helping people connect with what are their beliefs? What can support them through this situation? It’s a pretty amazing thing to see people come to an awareness of what’s really true and what they can hold onto during those times.”

As spiritual counselors, chaplains try to help patients and their families see their situation in a different light, and find their inner resources.

“Once you start walking into it,” Weil said, “it’s amazing how a person can cope with it, and what’s happening. And they do amazingly well.”

There are fun aspects of their job too, conducting weddings and baby blessings, even arranging parties for patients. They also teach classes on subjects such as spirituality and health care ethics.

James compares what they do more to counseling than to church ministry.

“What we focus on in our training is understanding how hospitalization and illness and injury affects people and how they interact with it based on who they are, and how to help them face those challenges and make it through,” she said. “We’re not here for religious support necessarily, though we do obviously provide that if patients need it.

“But we’re here basically to support them on their journey. I consider it an honor, and I think all four of us do, to just walk with people on their journey, whatever it happens to be.”

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