Sr. Karie Hamilton serves as a chaplain with Multicare Health System, Tacoma General Hospital and Mary Bridge Children’s Hospital, in WA.
As a hospital chaplain (serving both an adult and children’s hospital), I am required to write chart notes (which is a permanent record) for every patient I encounter. There is an art to writing chart notes. I always keep in mind a person’s confidentially, to be open, accepting, curious, and fair, and to write something that will be helpful for the team of providers whom are also following the patient.
It can be tricky to share my experiences in a note that others will find helpful in caring for the patient while maintaining a person’s right of privacy and dignity. I almost always include these words, “Provided spiritual care and support through listening with empathy and compassion as patient.” I acknowledge a person’s pain and suffering and/or joys and delights. I offer words of consolation, celebration, affirmations, encouragement, and hope during every visit.
When I first started serving as a chaplain, I was quick to give advice and would often worry about my capacity and ability to be helpful. That has changed over time because the more I heard my own voice the less I heard the voice of the person I was serving. My theology teaches me to be quiet and to listen with compassion, curiosity, acceptance, and awe. This is when I encounter the Triune God in all its glory with others.
When I can be open, patient, and truly interested in hearing someone’s story, I find God. We find God together regardless of the language used through the beauty and truth of being in relationship. I’ve been bold enough to tell people (men, women, and children) that I love them. I tell people they are loved and forgiven, regardless of their faith or non-faith traditions. I tell people they are beautiful because it’s true.
I remember one of my very first visits as a resident intern with an 80-year-old Caucasian man who was suffering from heart disease. James (not his real name), immediately started talking about his work as a retired university religious professor. How many times he has read the bible, written articles, taught, preached, and shared the Good News. I was so nervous in fear that he would test my scriptural knowledge!
I pulled up a chair however and offered words of affirmations in his accomplishments. I honored his knowledge and his legacy. And I continued to listen, listen, and listen some more. Eventually, he put aside his degrees and worldly achievements and began to share his struggles and challenges. He was faced with death like no other time in his life and began to then talk about his doubts and questions of the God he has faith in, the God he worships and the God he loves. It was an incredible time of exploration and discovery as we joined together in mutual conversation about our faith, fears, doubts, questions, and hopes. Our time together was indeed a holy time!
I am constantly holding on to my theological insights of God’s grace and promises of love and forgiveness regardless of whom I am with and who I am asked to serve. The patients I serve at the hospitals are diverse in race, gender, age, culture, sexual preferences, religion, and spiritual beliefs. I am always asking myself when I enter into a relationship, what gives this person(s) meaning and purpose? Where do they find hope? What is their sense of the divine? And what do their relationships look like?
Patients lead the way and I am a witness to their journey of finding meaning, purpose, hope, love, and the divine. Rarely does a patient want to talk about their work, unless it is related to not having their basic needs met like housing, food, clothing, and healthcare. Patients want to talk about life, death, hope, forgiveness, sin, suffering, joy, peace, what it means to be human, and explore their questions, doubts, and sense of the divine.
Karen (not her real name), a 67-year-old African-American woman who is facing end of life due to heart failure, non compliance, and addiction issues, told me just the other day, “It’s too hard to live. It would be easier to die.” I agreed with her on so many levels and her comment opened the door to explore her pain and suffering, to have dialogue around her destructive and non-helpful behavior to people around her who are trying to help her. She shared the importance of writing in her journal documenting the injustices she experiences within the healthcare system and within her many relationships. And tucked away in one of her journals she invited me to read a prayer she wrote pleading for God’s mercy and love.
I told her it reminded me of the Jesus Prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner.” I got chills through my body as we related Karen’s suffering to Christ on the cross and affirmed her capacity to seek God’s healing powers of new life in spite of her feelings of hopelessness. We laughed together as Karen explained her obsessive-compulsive tendencies (with humor) and her need for privacy and space. And even though Karen yells and threatens others, and in spite of her anger and fears, she cares for and loves others. Karen writes to be heard. She screams to be heard. And she cries because no one hears her, including God, Karen told me.
I had the privilege of walking alongside Sofia, an African American mother of an infant daughter who suffered from chronic lung disease from the day she was born to the day she was finally able to go home 6 months later. Sofia and her husband struggled with making important healthcare decisions for their daughter that made sense and would prove helpful.
They were devout practicing Muslims and often had encouraging scriptures taped on to their hospital room wall that offered them hope and inspiration. Sofia told me one day that she was grateful for our conversations because I allowed her to process her thoughts and feelings without passing judgment or offering unsolicited advice. I will always remember how she was constantly calling on God’s guidance, wisdom, and peace as she cared for her daughter. She trusted in God’s will and protection and was able to balance making decisions within the healthcare world while holding on to her faith of a loving and forgiving God. She taught me a few things about trusting in God. Even though we didn’t formally pray together our encounters were reflective, thoughtful, and always prayerful.
I remember my encounter with Jim, sort of a gruff old farmer type of guy. He invited me into his room and shared with me his grief over the recent death of his wife. I don’t remember why Jim was in the hospital. It doesn’t matter. He wanted to talk about his wife, how he missed her so, and how he was sorry for some of his actions, especially for being inflexible and controlling at times. I invited him to tell me more about his wife so I could understand better what he was feeling and thinking. I asked him, “If your wife were in the room right now, what would she say?” And with tears he said, “She would tell me she loves me and tell me she forgives me.” Yes, indeed she would I told him.
I gave Jim a hope rock towards the end of our visit that I had in my pocket, reminding him of the hope we hold in God’s promises. He grabbed his worn jeans that were sitting on the window ledge and pulled out a red heart that he had in his right pocket and said this to me, “This heart has been in my pocket the day my wife died. This hope rock, I will carry in my left pocket, always and forever.”