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Working with patients in their darkest days

By Reverend Richard James, health enews, a news service from Advocate Health Care

Where science and spirituality intersect, you’ll find me, Reverend Richard James, senior staff chaplain at Advocate Christ Medical Center in Oak Lawn, Ill.

I have served in my role for the past 26 years, providing spiritual care for the Surgical Trauma Intensive Care Unit (STIC), the Neuro Critical Care Unit (NCCU), multiple general medical units and the Emergency Department of the Level I Trauma Center.

I became a chaplain because each day, it affords me the opportunity to be with people in the valley of the shadow of their crisis/illness journey and to answer the Divine call to serve humanity. I enjoy and love my work because it’s both challenging and rewarding; it takes place within a spiritually pluralistic and multicultural context of the hospital.

Chaplains serve a diverse population, providing spiritual care to hospital patients, visitors and associates, offering support through non-anxious pastoral presence, faith and prayer while remaining sensitive to religious and cultural traditions. My belief in God’s providential presence is the grounding conviction and germinating seed of my ethic of Divine benevolent intent, an inspired concern and respect for the dignity, worth and well-being of all persons, regardless of spiritual perspective, ethnicity, class or sexual orientation.

I take great pleasure in moments when a patient and their family, in addition to their interdisciplinary team, use resources to strive to relieve physical, emotional and spiritual suffering to embrace healing.

One of my favorite examples of this occurred in the Emergency Department. A very young girl had burned most of the front of her body after pulling a pot down from the stove top. I remained at the child’s bedside with her parents until her pain was too much for them to bear, and we would take a break in a designated quiet room. The child cried constantly for her mother, but her eyes were so badly burned shut that no tears fell. Her parents felt helpless, as her excruciating pain overwhelmed them, and they were unable to help her.

But my experience and compassion guided me.

I asked the parents if they ever sing to their child, to which they informed me that they do all the time. I whispered to them, ‘perhaps you could sing to her now?’

I remember the young girl’s parents singing through their tears, and the child beginning to respond to their words. She no longer cried out for her mother, now feeling their presence.

I, too, began to cry, because the child and her parents were so connected—touching without touching. In the midst of trauma, we were smiling through our tears. I like to think that we all knew God was with us, and that place of pain was also Holy Ground.

Each day’s challenges—including days such as the one described above—are a myriad of spiritual care circumstances as complicated yet as beautiful as the sun shining through a stained-glass window.

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