Team of Professionals at St. Mary’s Spiritual Care Department Helps Patients of Every Faith and Denomination
By Laura Wilcox
At St. Mary’s Medical Center, patients not only get advanced health care. They get hope.
Hope and a holistic approach to care have been a focus of St. Mary’s Medical Center for decades. Today, the hospital’s spiritual care department continues to be committed to the spiritual well-being of everyone in its care. It has always been their mission to attend to the whole person in body, mind and Spirit.
“When a person comes into the hospital, it’s often a crisis situation for them,” said Rev. Vernon McNear, supervisor of the clinical pastoral education program at St. Mary’s. “Their illness is just one aspect of things they’re trying to cope with because being sick has upset their ability to deal with life’s other challenges.”
Saying a prayer before surgery, comforting a person or even just listening can make a big difference for patients and families, McNear said.
“We’re here to make sure people stay connected to their spiritual beliefs when they need that faith the most,” McNear said.
“That is what the chaplain does. Chaplains are with people while they’re going through a difficult time.”
Garlene Layne-Abshire knows what it means to have someone by her side during trying times. The Pikeville County, Ky., woman spent many weeks at St. Mary’s after her 16-year-old son was in a head-on collision on his four-wheeler in 2006.
Initially, one doctor said her son, Dustin Layne-Lawson, would likely not recover. Another said that if he did, he’d never speak. Each time something bad happened, someone from the spiritual care department was there.
“Every time that Dustin had a turn for the worse, I’d look at the door and Chaplain Dido was there,” Layne-Abshire said. “It was like God was telling him, you need to be there.”
Layne-Abshire and her family became very close to Chaplain, K. Dido Ntontolo and Pastor Bob Hogsett. Ultimately, Hogsett attended her son’s high school graduation.
Dustin was hospitalized from May 22 through Sept. 28, 2006. Now, he can talk and walk just like anyone, his mother said, though he is almost completely blind and suffers seizures.
Layne-Abshire said the Sisters at St. Mary’s also checked on the family during those rough weeks. She said the presence of the nuns, chaplains and pastors helped to put the family at ease.
“They were like life savers to us,” she said. “They were there for us constantly.”
Spiritual care is an important part of care for the whole person, according to Sister Diane Bushee, vice president for mission integration at St. Mary’s. Sister Bushee has been with St. Mary’s full time since 1964. When she first started, Sisters were working in every department of the hospital.
“I think the presence of the Sisters here has made a difference,” she said. “We’ve been here since 1924. When people come in and they don’t see the Sisters, they’re really disappointed.”
In 1970, when the hospital realized it didn’t have enough Sisters to have someone available to patients at all times, the spiritual care department was created, Sister Bushee said.
St. Mary’s is the only hospital in West Virginia and throughout the Tri-state area to be accredited by the Commission on the Accreditation of Pastoral Services. We are one of 25 healthcare facilities throughout the U.S. to receive this designation, according to Carol Mazurek, director of the Department of Spiritual Care, Counseling and Mission at St. Mary’s.
Mazurek said the accreditation parallels to St. Mary’s mission and values in providing the highest standard in Spiritual Care. This accreditation is further proof that at St. Mary’s, our mission extends beyond caring for the physical needs of our patients…we understand the importance of meeting spiritual needs as well. She said professional chaplains at St. Mary’s must have four units of CPE (clinical pastoral education), as well as a master’s degree in theology, pastoral studies or equivalent.
Sister Bushee said the accreditation keeps a committed and qualified full-time staff at the medical center. She said the staff continues to support the values of the Sisters from long ago, and St. Mary’s has certified, compassionate people on the premises for anyone to talk to around the clock.
“Having a spiritual care representative here all the time is very important,” Sister Bushee said. “That’s not available in every hospital. We’ve been very fortunate to have 24-hour coverage”.
St. Mary’s has four full-time chaplains, two part-time chaplains, six associate chaplains and 18 ministers from the community of diverse faiths who are volunteers in our “Night Call Ministry Program” aiding the hospital 24-7 coverage, Mazurek said.
St. Mary’s expanded its educational opportunities in September with its extended CPE program, according to McNear. Four students are currently working as chaplain interns as part of that program, which requires them to meet once a week for 30 weeks to receive one unit of CPE. St. Mary’s also has a summer program, which lasts 12 full-time weeks. The paid residency program requires a year of full-time studies to earn the four units needed to become a professional chaplain.
McNear said the program allows people in the community to work toward furthering ministry, too.
“It’s great for people who just want to give care, whether it’s in a hospice or a nursing home, a college campus — any place where spiritual care is provided,” he said. “A unit of CPE is a great asset.”
Mazurek said the CPE program is a great opportunity for persons who want to develop the pastoral skills needed to provide a ministry of presence to those in a hospital setting, those in crisis, in a school setting, those confined to a nursing home, or at home. , She said the academic and clinical training aid students in recognizing their strengths, vulnerabilities, and limitations, allowing them to grow spiritually, mentally and emotionally.
McNear said the program continues to develop, with the summer program scheduled to begin this summer. This fall, the paid residency program will begin with four students, while others will start the extended program.
He said the potential of the program and its outcomes are great.
“Where do you learn how to sit with someone and really help someone with spiritual pain, grief, loss and issues around life itself? We try to give everyone in our program the ability to deal with and help people with those kind of complex issues,” he said.
“The physician asks how a patient is doing and what’s going on physically,” McNear said. “The chaplain asks how the patient is doing within. Often, the struggles and pain we’re feeling inside have a direct impact on how we’re doing physically.”
McNear said CPE is not about book learning. Instead, it focuses on clinical experience. One unit is comprised of 400 hours – 300 hours of clinic time working with patients and 100 hours in the classroom.
Mazurek said spiritual care staff members respond to all crisis calls, referrals, and special requests. Each chaplain is assigned a unit within St. Mary’s to provide continuity of care to staff, patients, families and caregivers.
“When coming into a hospital, you lose control over your time, routine, and schedule,” she said. “We bring to patients and families an opportunity to be in control. We offer reflective listening to the agenda of their choosing, often unveiling spiritual issues such as grief and loss which can bring disease to the soul and delay healing,” she said.
“We’re dealing with people’s emotions,” Mazurek continued. “We need to meet them where they are and journey with them without regard to religious affiliation, background, or ethnicity. People from all walks of life come through our doors, and every day is different. We never know what situation or whose soul we will be walking into at any given moment. It is a humbling responsibility which we take very seriously.”
Anna Dillon of Proctorville, Ohio, certainly didn’t expect to be at St. Mary’s last Christmas. Her mother, Ruby Neal, died at the hospital on Dec. 26 at the age of 75. She said visits from a chaplain during that time meant a lot.
“He stayed with us until she took her last breath and then afterwards,” Dillon said. “He kind of walked us through what to expect and what was coming. I had never experienced anything like that before. I’ve had deaths in the family, but this was my mother and my best friend. I had never been beside someone who was actually going to leave.”
Dillon said the chaplain was so wonderful she sent a thank-you note to the department. Not only did he talk her through what was happening, but he prayed with the family and consoled them as if he were one of them, she said.
One of the Sisters also ended up spending time with Dillon after she was in a car accident and suffered a small stroke a couple of weeks after her mother’s death.
“She came into my room and we talked,” Dillon said. “She was so wonderful. It was a great experience knowing that they were there for us.”
Layne-Abshire said the spiritual care department at St. Mary’s gave her hope even when the future looked grim. Her son’s lungs had collapsed and he had massive brain injuries. During all this, she said the nursing staff treated her like family and the chaplains were tremendous.
“They were always there for us, by our side,” she said. “They’re just a wonderful department, a wonderful hospital.”
Before the accident, Layne-Abshire had never even been to St. Mary’s. She said her son just happened to be taken there by the emergency helicopter.
“I am so thankful they did,” she said.
For more information about spiritual care at St. Mary’s, please call: 304-526-1188.