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Rural hospital relies on volunteer chaplains to serve patients

By Jeannette Solimine

As many people in health care begin to recognize the importance of prayer in the healing process, fewer hospitals are able to afford paid chaplains on staff. 

Larger hospitals, which at one time could afford paid chaplains, are starting to take their cue from hospitals in smaller communities and many smaller hospitals in larger communities, which have rarely had paid chaplains. 

A growing number of hospitals and communities have volunteer chaplains.  One such hospital is Whitman Hospital and Medical Center in Colfax.

Colfax Hospital Statue

Statue at hospital

Whitman Hospital offers in- and out-patient surgical and other services, a 48-bed acute care facility, services of 50 doctors and three nurse practitioners, and a new outpatient surgery center.

The Colfax Ministerial Association saw a need for chaplains at the hospital and several of the local pastors began volunteering their time. 

Kami Raymond, the hospital’s social services manager, saw that a need was being filled by the volunteers and formalized the program.  Training is required, and lay people are encouraged to volunteer as well.

Kami developed the informal volunteers into a regular group who underwent training in being a hospital chaplain, including instruction on disease transmission, tuberculosis tests and Health Insurance and Portability Act (HIPA) regulations regarding patient rights and privacy.  This consists mostly of reading, watching videotape and following a current chaplain on several visits.

The chaplains meet twice a year for lunch at the hospital to discuss policy and law changes, give feedback to one another and the hospital, and set the schedule for the next six months.

Katie Evermann Druffel, who was hired in September 2004 to replace Kami, currently oversees the program. 

Katie, whose family is from the Palouse, came to Whitman Hospital with previous social services experience at Seattle Mental Health, University of Nebraska Medical Center and Father Flanagan’s Boys Town.

Katie’s father, Jim Everman, a researcher at Washington State who attends Sacred Heart Catholic in Pullman, is part of the volunteer chaplaincy program there, a program made up of lay people rather than pastors.

Katie intends to carry on where Kami left off.   She says that her role in the hospital is to “coordinate discharge plans for patients who meet high risk criteria and those referred by medical staff or patient/family request. 

“I collaborate with the patient, the medical staff and the patient’s family to determine appropriate placement, community referrals and follow-up,” she said.

The chaplaincy program is one part of that role.

“The chaplaincy program is an integral part of our holistic interdisciplinary team approach to treatment,” said Katie, who attends St. Gall in Colton.
Her goal is to expand and improve the program.  She seeks to increase the number of volunteers serving as chaplains, focusing on involving more lay people.

The volunteer chaplains sign up for one to five weeks—in a row or spread  over six months—and are expected to “make rounds” of all non-confidential patients.  In order to protect patient privacy—part of the HIPA regulations—chaplains are not allowed to visit “confidential” patients, those who are not on the list the nurse gives them.  This list includes the patient’s religious affiliation, if they gave it to the hospital when they checked in.

Chaplains are at the hospital to offer spiritual comfort to the patients and their families during a specific time of stress.  They will pray with and for those who desire it.  They will attempt to draw out the patients and families to help them talk about subjects that frighten them or comfort them.  This can come from a simple conversation about a person’s home, job, family, hopes and dreams.

Through prayer, conversation and a gentle touch of the hand, chaplains often alleviate the stress and anxiety many patients feel while confined to a hospital bed.  Patients often express appreciation to the chaplain. 
One patient told a chaplain, “Thank you for holding my hand and praying with me.  I didn’t know how much I needed it until you did it.”

Because most of the chaplains in Colfax have been pastors, little training has been given in the area of spiritual comfort and discussion.  Training in this area may need to be added as more lay people become involved.

Training also includes what chaplains may not do:  Chaplains are not to tell others that a patient is in the hospital without the patient’s permission.  They are not allowed to pray for people who ask them not to, and they must leave the room when asked. 

Chaplains are also not to proselytize.  They are not there as pastors.  Patient rights and privacy are at all times to be protected and no advantage is to be taken of someone in a weakened state of physical or mental health, Katie said.

Though it rarely happens, the chaplain for the week would also be expected to come in at the specific request of a patient or family if it appears that the patient is dying.

Usually people prefer their own pastors, but if the pastor is not available or the family does not regularly attend church, a chaplain will be called.

Occasionally, chaplains provide transportation for patients leaving the hospital if other forms of transportation are unavailable.

“Being a volunteer chaplain in a rural community hospital is not a demanding job, but it is a valuable one for both the volunteers and the patients,” Katie said.  “The need for prayer is growing, but many who are not regular church-goers are still embarrassed to ask.”

A chaplain provides patients with the opportunity to agree nonchalantly to have the chaplain visit and pray for their healing. 

Katie believes that “chaplaincy addresses the spiritual needs of patients and families.”

As acceptance of the need for prayer in the healing process grows, the possibility of staff chaplains in small hospitals may grow.  Until that time, smaller, rural communities and hospitals, and even larger ones such as the one in Pullman, will continue to use volunteers.

For information, call 397-3435.

Copyright © The Fig Tree - February 2005