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The professional empathizers of Valley View's Spiritual Care team

Jan 31, 2018

Credit Valley View Hospital

Hospitals are scientific places. Doctors order tests, do exams and use machines. At Valley View Hospital in Glenwood Springs, however, there’s a team of chaplains also ready, at a moment’s notice, to tend to any patient’s spiritual needs.

Lauren Martin is the hospital’s Spiritual Care Coordinator and a chaplain. He and his three colleagues are essentially professional empathizers; they sit with patients in the midst of their fears.

When he gets to work each morning, Martin does rounds, which means he goes from patient to patient, introducing himself.

“Very quickly, I let them know that I’m not there to proselytize,” he said.

Of course, he’ll pray with a patient if they want, but he’s there mainly to chat about anything, from feeding birds to John Deere tractors. He’s not there to tell a joke, or to offer consolation. Some patients are very sick, like Tod Cecil, who just celebrated his 60th birthday.

“I thought I would turn 60,” Cecil said in a recent interview. “I don’t know if I’ll turn 65.” He has a rare form of bladder cancer. In 2017, he had either an appointment, a procedure, a surgery, a hospitalization, or lab work, at least once a week, from the beginning of January to the first week of October.

When you spend that much time in the hospital, it’s nice to have someone like Lauren Martin to talk with. For Cecil, though, it’s more than just nice. He and his wife are very close, but they don’t have kids, and Cecil doesn’t have many friends, let alone male friends, except for Martin.

“He’s probably the one male person I’ve talked to about any of this,” Cecil said.

Having extra support has helped Cecil and his wife, as she’s no longer the only other person bearing the emotional weight of her husband’s diagnosis.This is the work of spiritual care: Shouldering emotional weight in any situation.

Patty Harris, who started Valley View’s spiritual care program in 1998, described what it’s like to be present in the emergency room during a resuscitation, and helping the family members, who are watching the scene in shock.

“I can hold my hand on their arm, or help them stand there and watch. I can make eye contact with the staff because they’re looking at me, as though they’re looking for support.”

When Harris started the program, many at the hospital were skeptical. She remembers hospital staff avoiding her gaze as she walked down the hallways.  

“They were doubting,” she said. “Do they want to trust me with their patients? Which is a very legitimate question, I think.”

Harris said the hospital previously had bad experiences with religious leaders proselytizing. She eventually won the trust of her colleagues because the work of spiritual care, she thinks, speaks for itself. This bears out across the medical field: 25 years ago, two medical schools in the United States offered coursework on spirituality in health care.

“Today, 100 percent of them do. It’s recognized that this is essential to healing,” Harris said.  

Spiritual care, of course, is no panacea. When terrible, unfair things happen to seemingly innocent people, Harris calls these cases the “whys?”

“Why is an innocent child killed or hurt? Why is a young mother of three children developing cancer at age 40?”

But she thinks spiritual care is more crucial to health care now than ever before. In a world of rapid technological advancement, patients expect to get well quickly. When they don’t, they turn to their fellow human beings for understanding and compassion.

Lauren Martin likens it to a room full of stringed instruments.

“If you pluck a C-string, all of the other C-strings will say, ‘I recognize that! I recognize that frequency, I know what to do with that!' And they begin ringing; somehow the same thing is true within people.”

And that’s Martin’s work: To listen to his patients and show them he cares.