Wellington Hospital is a busy place. It’s 474 beds do not, perhaps, seem that many (although you have to add the 110 at Kenepuru and the 175 mental health beds at Porirua when looking at the whole District Health Board). But the figures start to get impressive when you realize that in the 2011/2012 year these hospitals managed 47,723 admissions and day cases. And there were 605,000 outpatient and community-based visits over the same time. Although this second figure relates to the greater Wellington area, many of the inpatient visits were from the top half of the South Island and the lower half of the North Island (Taranaki across to Taihape and to the Hawke’s Bay).
Beds don’t get cold! And while the turnover is rapid, some patients stay for a surprisingly long time. Just keeping up with this rapidly-changing population is difficult, so our team of two full-time and two part-time chaplains is very grateful to have the assistance of sixteen chaplaincy assistants. These people have all been through a careful selection process and a thorough training course. They receive monthly group supervision from one of the chaplains and have to sign a contract with the Inter-church Council on Hospital Chaplaincy. While it is the chaplains who are on-call and attend to some of the more difficult situations, we couldn’t manage without our competent, experienced and committed chaplaincy assistants.
Being a Volunteer Hospital Chaplain’s Assistant
By a member of the volunteer team
I was approached by my pastor, asking if I was interested in training to become a volunteer hospital visitor, working in the chaplaincy team. I had no idea such a position existed and was intrigued that the professional chaplains needed support from volunteers. As I thought about this, my heart was challenged; I used to be a nurse and I feel comfortable in the hospital environment.
I was interviewed and expressed my apprehension at the idea of meeting many strangers. I was warmly accepted into the course to begin basic training. I have now been a volunteer chaplains’ assistant for about five years and over that time it has come to take a much more prominent place in my life. I have completed further training to enhance my work. Initially, I visited a busy surgical ward once a week. This was a time of great trepidation, yet I gained so much through meeting brave and open people. I realized it was the highlight of my week. So I resigned my regular employment to be able to do more visiting. I now schedule my work around my visiting.
Currently, I visit the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), the antenatal ward and the gynecology ward three times weekly. No one day is ever the same. On many occasions, I am a friendly face, a visitor without an agenda. I see some people only once. I visit others over many months as their baby grows and develops in the NICU. Some women are transferred from all around the region and have no regular contact with whanau and friends. For them I am often what we refer to as “a boredom buster”! Yet in all interactions, I acknowledge that spiritual and emotional healing are important alongside physical healing.
Some people ask for prayer. On many occasions, I refer to the chaplains to visit further and for rituals such as Baptism and bringing the Eucharist. I try to be sensitive to each person’s needs and wishes. I never wish to impose. Yet I always introduce myself as a chaplains’ assistant, so people know my role.
Recently I visited a lady from out of town who was on bed rest for several weeks. We chatted about many issues including her fears that her pregnancy was not progressing well. We came to relish the regular chats. I was able to do errands for her as well as stave off some loneliness. When her baby died soon after birth we cried together as I tried to support her and her husband. She wanted to show me her beautiful child and share in her grief. It was a privilege to do so – but hard.
All the assistants have regular supervision from one of the chaplains in the team. This gives an opportunity to share our concerns, our frailties, our joys and our dilemmas.
Some patients’ needs are physical – toys for visiting children, a magazine, another pillow, a fresh cup of tea. Others need to be heard as they struggle with having surgery postponed, or hearing challenging news. Very occasionally they may want help from an independent person to make a complaint.
I offer support to relatives of those in hospital. I visited a lady whose elderly mother was hospitalised for several weeks. Far from her home and family, the daughter stayed in a nearby hostel and spent hours at her mother’s bedside. Both asked for prayer; sometimes it was the daughter who needed more support as she watched her mother undergo many treatments.
At times I am asked to support staff as well and I do that readily.
It is challenging and rewarding work. I am blessed to be able to visit and feel privileged to hear many stories of courage; I am blessed and encouraged through this ministry as my eyes and heart are opened to the sufferings and delights