Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of February 9, 2004
Sister chaplains bring healing
Working with elderly patients brings many sacred moments
By LASHA MORNINGSTAR
WCR News Editor
The patients at Capital Care Grandview can be forgiven if they do not realize the chaplain's radiant smile belongs to a nun.
For Sister Norma Johnson wears her religious designation in her heart and soul, not on her name tag.
Given the rainbow of spirituality that exists in the 250 plus bed facility, the "Norma" on the lapel leaves the door open for all.
And they can be assured a gentle welcome from this woman whose eyes light each time she mentions "the privilege I feel" in being there.
Sister Norma describes her work as "being present as they (the patients) journey" through their illness or death.
"You listen. You be where they are," she explains.
And that's not always easy.
The Sister of Our Lady of Charity says one of the greatest difficulties of the work is to "always be sensitive and prepared for each situation especially for those who have little faith and are afraid."
A parish pastoral associate before moving into her chaplaincy, Sister Norma underlines the ecumenical aspect of her work when she tells of coordinating the various denominations' religious services.
A Catholic service happens every week under the auspices of St. Agnes Parish and the sister also brings the Eucharist to her fellow Catholics every morning.
A patient first meets the chaplain when they are admitted and she assesses their wants and needs. These of course can and often do change as the healing or death passage progresses.
When Sister Norma attended seminars with psychiatrist Dr. Elizabeth Kubler Ross, the sister said the death and dying expert saw the death journey as "a tunnel going into a newness of life, that there was something beautiful beyond."
This Barrhead native took many courses at Newman Theological College and is now part of a team that gives courses for Capital Health Care on care for the sick and the dying.
She deals with a multitude of patient concerns, ranging from their loss of independence and privacy to the belief "that they are nothing, everything has been taken from them."
Many are forgotten by friends and family. But not by Sister Norma.
An integral part of the health care team, she is also called on by staff with their own concerns.
That team concept is a valid one. Harvard cardiologist Herbert Benson said, that following intensive research, "I am astonished that my scientific studies have so conclusively shown that our bodies are wired to (be) nourished and healed by prayer and other exercises of belief."
But not all patients want to sign on to that healing team and it's not uncommon for a chaplain to be rebuffed by a patient.
"I have to respect that," said Sister Miriam Helm. "I tread lightly, but I still stay in touch with that person as Miriam Helm, someone who is interested in them.
"Sometimes it is a test. They can be the loneliest of people and are hoping you will not give up on them. It is also a reminder to me to be very mindful of that person in my own personal prayer."
Often, once the patient gets to know the chaplain, they become the best of friends. "It's amazing how God works," says Sister Miriam.
A Sister of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul of Halifax, Sister Miriam is spiritual and religious care manager at the 204-bed St. Joseph's Auxiliary Hospital.
Her accent tells of her New York roots where she studied for chaplaincy and earned her master of theology. A chaplain since 1978, she says chaplaincy gives one "a unique chance to be with patients, give them time and travel with the person through their journey of suffering."
Three Catholic chaplains
St. Joseph's provides clinical care, a palliative unit plus a facility dedicated to Asian residents. The Catholic three-member chaplain team visits each resident within 24 hours of his or her arrival and regularly keeps in touch with them while they are there. They also work with community clergy and are training lay volunteers to assist in visitations.
The chaplains' department name - spiritual and religious care - was chosen specifically "so it is more inclusive," says Sister Miriam. A survey discovered the surprising fact there are 21 different sets of religious beliefs among the patients.
"That is one of the real beauties and strengths we have and we try to be sensitive to these religious beliefs," she says.
Accordingly, arrangements are in place to facilitate worship by all faiths.
The chaplains' goal is to be a source of comfort, hope and reassurance and to create a safe place where patients can voice their beliefs, doubts and fears.
Sometimes a patient will insist that the chaplains can make them better.
"It's all in God's hands, not my hands," Sister Miriam tells them. "God is the true director and I am just the instrument."
Like Sister Norma, Sister Miriam finds staff come in and share the ups and the downs of life. "We have really become like a family."
Chaplaincy is a two-way ministry, with the chaplain often feeling they receive more than they give. Sister Miriam tells of one such instance.
"It was a Sunday morning and the resident was going into unconsciousness. I wanted to let that person know someone was with them. And I began to pray the 23rd Psalm. And just as I was finishing, the resident slipped away.
"The moment of death can be a powerful, sacred moment. I have always been grateful for that journey."