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.