Nursing spiritual needs with words of comfort


When you visit a hospital as a patient, or work there as a staff member, the experience can be difficult and traumatic. At Howard County General Hospital, employees attempt to have every available tool for dealing with a person's health - physical and spiritual.

One of these tools is provided by the Department of Pastoral Care, which is headed by the Rev. Robert Van Ingen.

Pastoral care at Howard General consists of one full-time chaplain, Van Ingen, and two part-time chaplains, the Rev. Kay Hedge and the Rev. Barbara Hastings, but they also rely heavily on the community.

"We draw from about 80 volunteers from every corner of the local religious community," Van Ingen said. "Twenty or so on-call clergy have agreed to serve one or two nights a week, and other faiths have agreed to provide care if requested by people in the hospital."

The Pastoral Care Department's mission is to "provide the highest level of effective care to each individual by its attention to the spiritual needs and resources of each individual," according to the department's mission statement. "All pastoral care ministries are intended to be ecumenical and interfaith, respecting every individual's religious and spiritual orientation."

Hedge has her own version of the department's mission.

"You have to meet each patient where they are and be careful not to foist your agenda on them," she said. "I like to say that I offer a song, a dance, a Scripture, a prayer or nothing at all. It's their [the patients'] choice." She added, "It's not just a job to me, it's a calling."

It takes training to minister to the sick and their families. "Each of those in the program undergoes a six-month training program and then is assigned to a specific unit which they visit about once a week," Van Ingen said. "It takes a lot of training and experience to effectively deal with the grief."

He said chaplains make rounds at the hospital and try to see every patient at least once. Also, nurses and doctors can call them to consult with patients.

"The chaplains are very good in helping with the families," said Patty Bent, a registered nurse and clinical program director for emergency services. "When we have a patient that has come into the [emergency room] in cardiac arrest that we can't recover, the death is usually sudden and the family is not prepared to deal with it.

"At the family's request, we will call the chaplains, and they will deal with the family's grief while the nurses and doctors are providing detailed patient information," she said. "They are a big help, and they are very responsive."

Patients are not the only ones who rely on the department's services.

"Everything that happens in the outside world happens to the people here," said Hedge, referring to the hospital's staff. "We have people who have lost loved ones, sons and daughters, and they still have to come in and work here."

"We are often approached in the hallways while visiting patients by staff members who want to talk," Van Ingen said. "We try to provide staff support as well as patient support."

To help with staff issues, the chaplains have started a staff support group and hold interfaith classes.

Besides patient visitations, the Pastoral Care Department provides a list of 24-hour, on-call clergy of various faiths who may be contacted for visits and consultations.

They conduct a variety of religious ceremonies and operate an inter-denominational/inter- aith chapel.

The newly renovated chapel, which will include new stained-glass windows, will be dedicated at noon Feb. 17.

The windows' design was inspired by a vision Van Ingen had while jogging around Columbia's Centennial Lake.

"It was just after a thunderstorm, and the sun was shining through the clouds. It reminded me of a Bible passage from the Gospel of St. John," Van Ingen said. The passage reads: "The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it."

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