Positively spiritual

I recently saved someone’s life after intervening in a critical incident through my work as a pastoral carer. While I can’t go into details due to confidentiality reasons, after a triumvirate of serendipitous messages from the universe on this one day, I had to write about what it’s like to be at the coalface of pastoral care.

When I meet patients and introduce myself as being from pastoral care, there is often a degree of confusion. Some older patients have asked me if I’ve come to tell them about how their farm is holding up, and so when I say ‘pastoral’ care, I usually follow it up with the words ‘spiritual care’. The vast majority of my patients are not religious, but all are spiritual. Every single one of them. Many patients I speak with don’t believe they have any spiritual connection in their lives, but when you dig a little deeper and find their passion, that is where their often untapped spiritual potential lies.

While it’s not my role to make people more aware of their spirituality, when I listen to a person, I’m being a sort of healing presence. It’s my role to ensure that the person I am speaking to feels like they’re the most important person in my world at that moment in time. Inadvertently or not, my patients regale me with stories about what they’re most passionate about, and this is where the gold is. This is where the conversation leads to what is most consequential and meaningful in their life and this is where they meet their spiritual self which can be life altering.

Unfortunately, pastoral carers do not play as big a role in the framework of a multi-displinary medical team as many of us would like, in Australia at least. Social workers, dieticians, physiotherapists and occupational therapists all have a role to play in patient care, but pastoral carers are not given equal footing. For example, we  don’t write in patients charts so other members of a patients care team can see how a patient is faring from a spiritual or existential perspective. Yes, we are respected, but I’m of the opinion that it would be in the patients best interest to take our involvement one step further. For example, exploring a patients spiritual history (just as a doctor would take a medical history) would be a good start when they’re admitted to the hospital. Pastoral and spiritual care is a critical adjunct therapy and should be considered as such.

Last week when a nurse asked where I was from, I responded with ‘oh, just pastoral care’, to which another nurse said, ‘just?’ She was right. I’m not just from pastoral care. I am from pastoral care and for that I am both grateful and proud.

I have learned incalculable lessons during this journey and one that I see time and again is that pastoral carers are often the people who ‘pick up the slack’. Long after doctors have given a diagnosis or a prognosis, we are there to help pick up the pieces. As a pastoral carer, I’m there to provide a healing presence, and while doctors are more involved in patient care than ever – including spiritual care – it’s often pastoral carers who enter a patients life when they are at their most vulnerable.

It’s a prodigious feeling to know your purpose and I feel that my life (at least post-transplant) has been leading up to this point. I am many things. I am a woman, a writer, a dreamer and a do-er. I am a person who wants to make a difference and I am a woman who has trials and skirmishes with life like everyone. I am a daughter and a sister; an aunt and a friend. I am also a patient, so I have more in common with my patients than they initially realise. When I introduce myself as being from pastoral care I get a lot of people not wanting to connect because they think I’m at their bedside to convert them. That is not what I do and I tell them as such. I am often asked, ‘what are you here for?’ To listen, I say. A defining moment of learning happened when I was talking to a gentleman who asked me what I was there for. I foolishly said that I was there to help, to which he said brusquely, ‘I don’t need your help’. He was quite right. It is not my role to ‘help’ per se and I’m grateful that he put me firmly in my place. I’m not there to ‘help’. I’m there to serve, listen and be present.

Because hospital is a second home to me and the only protracted period of time I’ve spent away from the place has been post-transplant, while I’ve not forgotten – I seem to have misplaced the feeling of what it’s like to be institutionalised and in a place you don’t want to be. A place far from home. Alone. Unfamiliar and sterile surroundings. No loved ones. Strangers. And more tellingly,  strangers who are making decisions that will affect your life. Hospitals can be emotionally disarming places and while I’d like to say I’m a vision of composure when I return to hospital as an inpatient, I’m always apprehensive about what is happening and what may go wrong. Because health is an unpredictable beast. One minute you’re walking, and the next you’re in a resus bay in emergency. That’s the reality of life – it is so very delicate.

I’ve met people who have been in car crashes on their way to the airport to catch a flight to their dream destination. I’ve seen youth cut down in the prime of their lives and I’ve seen people who have lived hard lives; getting through by the skin of their teeth and who, after everything they’ve endured, including broken homes and relationships, addiction, abuse and homelessness to name a few, are facing a terminal prognosis.

Life moves at speed and horrible things can – and will – happen. But through the veil of catastrophe I see the tenacity of the human spirit. I have seen people in the worst of situations make the best of things. Because that is what humans do. We all have the capacity to turn the worst of hardship into something useful. So for all the suffering I see – and that’s what I have had the most trouble with – I see so much hope, courage and (often quiet) determination. The people I see rarely make a fuss. Like true warriors, they live with grace.

We may not be able to fix people, but each of us can be a compassionate presence. Research has found that a persons spiritual well being can aid in healing and being a patient myself I know this to be true. You can receive all the treatment in the world to ‘get better’, be it chemotherapy, surgery, antibiotics or dialysis, but to stay connected to what you find meaningful is essential to your well-being. And we all have the right to be well.

17 thoughts on “Positively spiritual

  1. Carly you are doing inspiring work, when my Mum was in hospital sometimes I could not get there every day due to the long trip and having school aged children. Her priest visited her and just knowing there are people like you waiting to sit and listen to someone who may be feeling alone or frightened is a godsend. Australia will evolve because we have inspiring individuals like you to shine a bright light on whats needed. keep up the amazing work. kath.

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    1. Hospital is a scary place to be, especially if you’re not used to being an inpatient as I am, so it’s nice to be there for patients who may be alone – and the sad truth is that many are. People feel burdensome and often don’t mention to their friends or family that they’re unwell. I hope that pastoral care can move forward ASAP. Much love to you XO

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  2. Carly, you just keep shining! You leave some of that light with each one you touch in the hospital and here in the blogosphere.

    Years ago I would have been one of those patients who pulled away at the thought of ‘pastoral care’. You know much of my story so are likely to understand that. It took years before I became at peace with the idea of spirituality and that it is not about religion. Being one who has walked and sometimes crawled along that fragile line, you are intimately aware of all the darkness that lurks ahead for each traveler. They could not have a more perfect guide for the journey.

    My dear friend, life is not only fragile but fleeting and everyone is in such a hurry. We will all cross the finish line in time we have but it is all the sweeter for those we reach out to. They enrich us.

    Much love, Léa XOXOXO

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    1. Oh, Lea … I too used to be on the ‘no visit’ list when it came to pastoral care! When you’ve fought so hard to survive; when you’ve literally been on the edge of life, sometimes all you want is to be left alone. I’ve been so enriched by my work and for those I’m serving. I do hope that I represent a sliver of light in an otherwise dark world XOXO

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      1. Oh my! Lea, what you wrote is like a little piece of my heart in words from a dear friend 🙂 Thank you SO much – I really needed to read this today. Big love, my French sweetie pie XOXO

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  3. Hi Carly-Jay Metcalf, I like the post.
    I haven’t shared this story with many but I’ll share it here.

    I was living and working in a large desert town (Kalgoorlie) at the time. Riding pillion-passenger on a good friend’s motorbike, a van coming the other way turned just ahead of us without giving way. My good friend Martin was instantly crushed between the motorbike and van whereas I was thrown some three blocks further down the road to land on my head of all things (wearing a good, full-faced helmet at the time meant that my story did not end there).
    There were breaks and dislocations, a popped lung and other physical damage but then and for quite a while after I would gladly have taken it all again if I could just go on WITHOUT the severe closed head-injury.
    The Royal Flying Doctor took me to Perth where I could receive the needed care.
    The next few months were a mixture of coma, slowly returning senses, wonderfully supportive family and friends, terrible hospital food and an aching return to having a life.
    Fragmentation, disassociation, depression, memory problems and a number of other related things were mixed into the next few years and in a way, I’ll spend the rest of my life recovering from this accident.
    While in hospital some family members and friends of family had told me that, at their behest, a number of churches full of people were praying for my life and recovery. My Mother (a Reike-Master), had used her ‘healing-energy powers’ on me.
    In those early times a number of other theories were told me regarding who/what to thank for my miraculously good recovery.
    Still unsure about the reality of these things (and most of what was happening at the time), I may have simply been glad that so many of my ‘bases were covered’ and that any of them or any combination of them may have helped. I know I felt awfully glad to still be alive and didn’t think more on these magical theories.
    Another part of that whole, dark time was what I learned about the early surgical and later rehabilitation methods that had occurred, the recording of them and how the whole process worked.
    The emergency staff in the ambulance, fast and careful for my injuries. The Royal Flying Doctor, who I have donated to many times since. The surgical staff, performing such vital and exacting tasks. The rehabilitation workers, psychologists, physiologists, occupational therapists, ankle experts, shoulder experts – the list goes on.
    A great friend of mine from Kalgoorlie had ridden his Harley to Perth to see me. I was still in a coma and only family were permitted to visit with my still form.
    A sympathetic orderly had told him, “We think he’s going to die, but there is a chance he will survive and we will see who or what comes out of the coma.”
    *This sounds a little harsh but obviously the chances of my sound recovery seemed to be about zero.
    I can’t deny the power of my supporting family and friends, nor deny the care and giant hearts possessed by all of those strangers in churches who were begging their god to give me life and fast recovery, can’t ignore the healing effects of my Mother’s love (Reiki or no). Many were praying and hoping for my survival.
    Those close were feeling the loss of the rider, my friend Martin, while I was on the brink in hospital, survival unlikely but not unknown to happen.
    It was the fast emergency workers, the well trained and efficient medical staff, the others who played a hand in my difficult recovery and everyone else who had anything to do with it as I slowly rose from the ashes. I still remember them with a tear and a smile.
    Any God or unearthly power or healing magic was (to me) a reflection of the concern that was felt my those who love me, concern that can still make me weep joyous tears.
    Martin was killed instantly whereas I was not beyond recovery, a recovery helped so much by those who love me and by those trained in their medical arts, the systems and programs developed to react to just such an emergency … they are to thank, they are responsible. Thanks for reading.

    All the best,
    Woody

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    1. Now I’m crying. What a story, Woody. Indeed – what a hell. I think I’m a lot like you – I take little tidbits out of most things and apply them to my situation. I still believe in the loving prayers that were happening all around the world when I had my transplant. Like you, I was at a far greater chance of dying than surviving, yet here I am. And here you are (hooray!). I’m so sorry about your friend, Woody. I can only imagine how hard and protracted your recovery was. My heroes are organ donors and their families, the doctors, nurses, and all the other allied health people who have literally saved us along the way. So much gratitude for our medical system, and much love to you X

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