Volunteer chaplains provide comfort at CFVH
May 7, 2020
Getting proper medical attention is a top priority at Clark Fork Valley Hospital, but spiritual well-being is also important to the recovery process, which is why the medical facility's chaplain volunteer program is such a significant component of the hospital, according to Barry Fowler, the hospital's director of Human and System Resources.
"I believe that research has shown that spirituality or faith is a factor that contributes to health in many persons," said Fowler, who added that many people with personal "religious convictions enter into how they relate to these problems" and help with dealing with grief.
The number of participants in the Clark Fork Valley Hospital chaplain program fluctuate, but as of late January there were five men and three women volunteers in the chaplain corps, four of which are ordained ministers, according to David Jabs, the chaplain coordinator since August 2018. The volunteer chaplains are residents of Plains and Thompson Falls. He said there have been others who have shown interest in the program, but couldn't volunteer for health or other personal reasons. "Not only do you need interest, you need ability. Knowing your limits is important. You can't give what you don't have," said Jabs.
The volunteer chaplains are on call a week at a time and families or patients can request a chaplain and they routinely make rounds at the hospital. Chaplains are sometimes called in for a trauma incident, such as when a patient's family members are at the hospital and in need of spiritual guidance. Jabs said the chaplains serve in different ways, visiting patients in acute care, residents of long term care, playing music, or conducting worship. Some of them have events for the nursing home residents every week. The coordinator said he asks patients if they attend church and if their pastor knows they are in the hospital and offers to contact their pastor. However, presently, due to the Coronavirus situation, the chaplains are on an on-call routine only.
"I find great joy in visiting patients in acute care and am careful to arrange to be on call on Christmas Day. Nobody wants to be in the hospital on Christmas," said Jabs, who added that this frees up other chaplains, especially those who are clergy who need to serve their church.
Chaplains are available to sit with dying patients when family or friends cannot be present so that no patient dies alone, said Jabs. Being ordained isn't a requirement, but Jabs said they prefer the volunteers have an active role in a local faith community, be passionate about service, and be on call one week every two months. Jabs is not an ordained minister, but he has been "consecrated as a chaplain" by his church. Fowler said the hospital does a background check on any potential volunteer and they get tested for tuberculosis.
Neither Jabs nor Fowler were sure when the chaplain volunteer program began, but Fowler thinks it probably started around the time the hospital was built in the 1970s. "The volunteer chaplain program began in earnest with the support and direction of Carole Serle, wife of former CEO John Serle," said Fowler, who's been with the hospital since 2002. He said that she had served as a chaplain at other hospitals and wanted to implement a program at Clark Fork Valley Hospital. "With the cooperation of Pastor Roy Williams, they were successful in recruiting volunteers to start the program," said Fowler.
The director noted that Clark Fork Valley Hospital is a small community hospital, which doesn't have the resources to have a paid spiritual care program, but he added that the community is fortunate to have a group of dedicated volunteers who provide spiritual care at the hospital. "The primary responsibility of these dedicated individuals are to be there for the patient and family as they might be needed. Prayer, comfort, logistical assistance, and even just being a presence with a patient when they are feeling their worst or the family can't be there," he said.
Jabs believes the chaplain corps are beneficial to those recovering at Clark Fork Valley Hospital. "Anything we can do to help a person experience a positive mindset will assist in physical healing. Anything we can do to help a person find peace and release their burdens to God as they understand God will tend to facilitate healing, as well," said Jabs, who recited the Bible's Proverbs 17:22: "A merry heart does good, like medicine, but a broken spirit dries the bones."
He believes being there in a chaplain capacity helps those who want it. "It is very rewarding to walk into a room where there is sorrow and heaviness, to talk and pray with a patient and their family, and to see them with greater peace when I leave than when I entered," said Jabs.
Jabs said there have been patients and their families that would say having a chaplain with them had helped. "And even when they are not finding healing of body, if we can sometimes help them experience peace of mind and peace of heart, then the journey is easier for both the patient and the family," he said. Jabs is certain that God cultivated him to have compassion for those who are hurting or suffering, which is why he continues to serve at the hospital. "And having experienced God's comfort in trouble, I want to share that comfort with others."
Times of seeing patients at peace through a chaplains' presence has given Jabs the evidence that he and his team makes a difference. He and the other chaplains can recall several instances where their presence and the power of prayer made a difference in the lives of patients and their families. Once he was visiting a dying man who was with his daughter. The man was unresponsive, but after singing a couple hymns, the daughter asked her father if he'd like to hear more. He muttered a positive response and Jabs sang and prayed. "He died a couple of days later. That moment impressed upon me that, even when a patient doesn't say anything or respond to my presence, that doesn't mean that he didn't know that I am there and what I do and say in those moments is just as important, maybe even more important, than when they are able to respond to me," said Jabs.
"What is meaningful are the people who are willing to share their lives in the one on one conversations. Often, they express their deepest fears or concerns regarding their health, life, and faith. There have been times they confide in me in ways they have not with the medical staff," said Jabs.
One of the chaplains whose name was withheld said the family asked that a chaplain visit with an elderly woman. "I totally relied on the Holy Spirit for guidance and the correct words to pray. The patient immediately relaxed. I perceived peace had entered her and joy filled her face as I prayed in the Spirit, laying my hand on her forehead," she said, adding that she revealed that she was looking forward to meeting her relatives in heaven. The chaplain said that she could see a feeling of peace come over the patient and the family members in the room.
"Spirituality is recognized as a factor that contributes to health in many persons," said Fowler, who added that a person's spirituality is expressed in an individual's search for ultimate meaning through participation in religion and/or belief in God and can influence how patients and health care professionals perceive health and illness and how they interact with one another.
"I love to be there for the patient and their friends and their families in those moments and to share the comfort with which I have been comforted that they might be comforted and encouraged," said Jabs, who feels that his spiritual gift is encouragement.
"People are not at their best when they are in the hospital. It is a great blessing for me to be able to enter into that space and use my gifts to encourage and to uplift. While the patients may receive a blessing, I think mine is the greater blessing. I usually feel a bit of a rush when I leave the hospital after doing patient visits."