Living with a chronic illness is exhausting – physically, emotionally, and spiritually. It is particularly hard when the disease is life-threatening. Patients, and their families, experience a sense of loss and grief as the illness progresses, even as they are receiving treatment to prolong and improve life.
As a palliative care chaplain at New Hanover Regional Medical Center, I am part of a team that helps patients and families find the comfort and support they need during this difficult time. Working with the patient’s full medical team, we help the patients talk through their fear, needs, and goals for treatment. Our focus is on helping patients get the best quality of life while receiving treatment for their illness.
Different from hospice care, which focuses on the end of life after curative treatment has stopped, palliative care can help patients at any stage of a serious illness. Many patients receiving palliative care are actively undergoing curative treatments, such as chemotherapy, radiation, and dialysis. Palliative care can be a bridge to hospice, but it is not hospice. While some palliative care patients may be heading into death, others are heading into life and finding a new normal.
Palliative care takes a holistic approach. Teams work closely together, and consist of medical professionals with complementary skills for treating the whole person, mind, body, and spirit. A complete team includes a physician, physician’s assistant or nurse practitioner, registered nurse, social worker, personal care aide, and chaplain. It is a very different approach to medicine, and some skills overlap to the patient’s benefit. For example, both the social worker and the chaplain can attend to emotional needs.
Some of my conversations with patients and families are deeply religious, while others are not. The chaplain represents a compassionate and nonjudgmental person for the patients to talk with about any concerns. When a patient really wants to talk about what’s ahead, or perhaps even more significantly what’s not ahead, families can have difficulty hearing these discussions. At the very least, I can give patients permission to say anything, if for no other reason than not to have to hold it inside any longer. The patient can name and claim what they’re going through, and hopefully move through it with more hope and support.
Palliative care chaplains are specially trained and skilled. In completing my own educational work, I pursued the standard theological training, but also concentrated in pastoral skills related to loss and bereavement, family systems, and religious and cultural diversity. One of the most important skills of a good chaplain is reflective listening…listening with the heart and processing with the head.
At New Hanover, chaplains provide emotional and spiritual support to patients, families, and staff. As the chaplain assigned to palliative care, I take pride in being a resource of support for the palliative care team as well as for our patients and their families. Palliative Chaplaincy is truly my calling.