Thursday, March 15, 2007

Undercover Prayer

A few weeks ago, I prayed with a patient in one of our ED critical-care rooms. It wasn't a particularly sad or high-pressure situation, except to the extent that any ED visit is; the patient was in pretty good spirits, and seemed optimistic about the medical outcome.

What was memorable about that visit was the nurse's reaction.

We'd chatted before; she'd told me how happy she was that our ED has chaplains, and we'd laughingly compared notes on our faith traditions. (She's Baptist. I'm Episcopalian. There are plenty of jokes and stereotypes about both.) She's one of those rare souls who has the ability always to seem cheerful, no matter how crazy things are in the department.

But when I looked up from praying with this patient, I realized that she'd been standing with her head bowed, praying with us. Later, she took me aside and told me again -- even more emphatically than she had the first time -- how much it means to her that our ED has chaplains.

"You have no idea how heartening it is to hear someone praying openly with a patient. I've worked in a lot of places, and in some hospitals, it's almost forbidden to pray."

And then she told me a story about one of her patients in another state:

"He was Roman Catholic, and he was dying. He wanted last rites. I told the unit supervisor that we should call a priest, but the supervisor was an atheist and got mad at me and said there was no place for that in our hospital. Can you imagine? When the patient was dying, and this was his last wish?

"There was a community chaplain visiting another patient; he was a Jehovah's Witness. I guess he hadn't told the supervisor who he was. Anyway, I talked to him, and the two of us snuck past the supervisor, and we prayed with the patient. Neither of us knew anything about Roman Catholic last rites, but we did the best we could, and I think the patient knew that."

I've heard other stories about situations where chaplains weren't available when a patient was dying, when nurses and family members had to give the patient -- and each other and themselves -- pastoral comfort and support. But I'd never heard of a unit supervisor, regardless of his or her religious beliefs (or lack thereof), banning prayer from the floor.

I didn't think to ask the nurse who told me this story if she complained to the supervisor's supervisor. I can imagine that she wouldn't have wanted to do that for fear of reprisal; still, I hope that supervisor has somehow learned that good medicine encompasses more than pure science.


  1. It's sad that there are people in the world who are so wrapped up in their views that they won't allow room for those of others. Sounds like you work in a very nice ED and have some truly wonderful folk there. Not to mention finding out how much you're appreciated. (g)

    I wonder what the statistics of success in care are for places like your's where prayer is accepted are compared to those where it isn't.


  2. Good question about the stats. It's hard for me to believe that the administration of this hospital wouldn't have been horrified if they'd known about this: I've never heard of any hospital without at least one chaplain, and they all hawe chapels, right?

  3. This resonates with me because I had the opposite experience when my mom was transitioning to be with the Lord.

    My mom was dying of lung cancer and during her remaining 2 weeks of life she was in the hospital. The chaplains there were so incredibly phenomenal. They were there everyday, praying for her, encouraging us, listening to us. Their presence made watching my mom die a little bit more tolerable. They were absolutely great, and this comment is really making me see that I probably need to send them a card thanking them again.

  4. KWiz, thanks for your comment. I'm sorry you had such a good experience with hospital chaplaincy (although I'm very sorry about the circumstances). In addition to thanking the chaplains, thank the hospital and that unit for making them available!

  5. Holistic care, anyone?

    In Cathie's new hospital they were told they couldn't have a cross in the chaplaincy because it was a fire hazard.

    I guess it is, but possibly not in the way that administrator imagined.

  6. Honey, I join in and drop my head whenever there is a prayer going on around my patient, whether led by family or a chaplain/priest/LDS bishop/Elder or whomever!

    And my patients may not realize it but I pray for them the entire time I'm taking care of them.

    Then again, I'm the type that looks at a homeless person and sees Jesus ("that which you do for the least of my bretheren you do for Me"), which is really difficult when they are cussing me out!

  7. Wow, I've never heard of such a thing. Every hospital where I've worked has had an open door policy to clergy. Patients have always been able to see clergy 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. I'm sorry your friend had to deal with that nasty supervisor.


  8. Celeste10:56 AM

    I had surgery in a Texas hospital and even though I checked "no religion, no desire for chaplaincy" on all of my forms, the chaplain paid me a visit prior to my surgery. I told her no thank you, and she said that she "always" visited anyone having surgery and said that she be would just give blessings upon me then.

    I found it upsetting and disrespectful that my feelings were asked only to be disregarded.

  9. Celeste: I'm sorry you had that experience, and agree that the chaplain was disrespectful. ln my hospital, we're trained that the proper response to "No, thanks" is to go away!


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