Courtney Wilson, a Novant Health chaplain since 2015, saw the young woman in the hospital lobby crying and rocking back and forth.
“She had a trash bag full of clothes, and paperwork for a domestic violence shelter,” said Wilson, who works in the emergency department at Novant Health Forsyth Medical Center in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
“Part of our training is to do assessments. One of the assessment models that we use has us look for a person’s needs, hopes and resources. I have a deep passion for those going through substance use disorders, homelessness and domestic violence. This particular young woman fit into all three of those categories.”
Wilson invited the woman to her office nearby, and listened to her story.
“She was very forthcoming,” Wilson said. “For her and so many others in similar situations, their needs and hopes outweigh their resources. Which in turn starts to diminish their hope and that’s when we feel alone.”
Wilson made a few phone calls, and sat with her until safe transport could take her to the shelter.
“I helped in the immediate sense of putting pieces together for her to take steps on her own,” Wilson said.
Responding to crises is the first line of training for a healthcare chaplain.
Their role has gradually changed over the years as research and practice in spiritual care has expanded. Traditionally seen as a role solely connected to religious needs, a chaplain can also be parts confidant, counselor, mediator and advocate.
Novant Health’s team of 33 professional chaplains includes 17 at in-patient facilities, five who serve hospice patients (usually in the patient’s home), two part-timers and eight PRN chaplains, who are on call. (Note: PRN stands for the Latin phrase pro re nata, meaning "as the situation demands").
This team supports patients and loved ones of any faith tradition, or no faith tradition; connecting patients to the specific resources they need.
Chaplains often are called to care for people in the midst of life-altering transitions: birth or death, diagnosis or change in prognosis, trauma or sudden illness. They sometimes see great joy and great despair in the same day.
Ladale Benson, chaplain at Novant Health’s Mint Hill Medical Center, said he often helps loved ones process what’s going on with a patient, and offers guidance when there’s a gap between what the patient wants and what other family members prefer.
Clashes can arise quickly when stress levels are high and people are concerned about a loved one. Enter the chaplain, whose calm, nonjudgmental presence invites everyone involved – patient, loved ones, and sometimes the healthcare team – to listen carefully for the patient’s priorities.
"The tensions of these experiences have a way of teaching us about ourselves." said Benson, who has been a chaplain for four years. “You let the family know they’re seen and heard. My job as a chaplain is to let them know that what they say matters, even if it’s a contradiction. And that’s what makes it complicated sometimes.”
Chaplains train to handle various situations, but no situations are exactly alike and few are planned. They begin a work day not knowing what will happen.
Recently, Wilson encountered a man whose brain tumor had caused a drastic shift in his behavior. He was irate and his wife was upset.
“This is not him,” the wife said, according to Wilson. Doctors gave him medication, which allowed him some clarity.
“He was very fearful,” Wilson said. “He’d been given weeks to live. He was struggling.”
The patient was questioning how his treatment decisions aligned with his religious beliefs. Sometimes patients ask chaplains for answers. Yet, professional chaplains know it is not their answers which are most important.
“We try to help a person come to a place of peace that is right for them,” Wilson said.
Sometimes stress can weigh heavily on Novant Health team members, and chaplains are there for them, too.
“I see staff support as also being patient care,” Wilson said. “It’s important that they know the chaplain is here for them. We will be the holders of their story. We will help them come up with a plan if they need one, or try to connect them to resources within the hospital or community. I love having those moments of connection and conversation, and the world they teach me. I love the emergency department, having to think quickly and be on your toes. I never know what the day will bring.”
Benson said he gains satisfaction when he helps someone.
“Every day, Novant Health chaplains demonstrate our vision for remarkable spiritual care,” said Joanne Henley, Novant Health corporate director of spiritual care.
What is that vision? Compassionate presence, courageous conversations and meaningful connections along the journey of life.
“I’ve learned some amazing lessons from the people who have invited me into their stories,” Henley said. “The moments that lead to change in our lives, are often things we don’t see coming.
“When you are invited into that moment and that journey, and step into that place with compassion and courage, you receive out of that conversation right along with giving,” she added. “You get lessons about life, about hope, perseverance, stamina, and faith. It’s an amazing role to serve in.”