I just completed my first week of CPE (Clinical Pastoral Education). What that means is that I am spending the summer serving as a hospital chaplain.
Jessica, Esther and I packed up our bags and moved to Olympia, WA for the summer where I am doing my CPE at St. Peter Hospital, which is the hospital where Jessica was born 30-something years ago. Life has a strange way of coming full circle.
We could have stayed in Austin, TX for the summer where I could have done my CPE at a local hospital, or taken Greek at the seminary, but when the opportunity presented itself to get out of the Texas heat and humidity for the summer, we couldn't get here fast enough. We are staying with Jessica's mom and Jessica and Esther are spending lots of quality time with her mom and dad.
CPE is a bizarre experience. After one year of seminary education, and 33 years of life experience, I am being thrust into some of the most painful, grief-filled, life-altering moments of the lives of patients and their families.
I am one of four students who are doing this chaplaincy internship this summer. One of the students is a first-year seminary student like me from an Episcopalian seminary, one student is a lay pastor in the Lutheran church, and the fourth student is an Air Force chaplain. There are two women and two men in our group and we range in age from mid 20s to mid 50s with each decade represented.
Our first week has consisted mostly of orientation. It is kind of like drinking from a fire hose, I am absorbing some of the information (getting my thirst quenched), but there is also a lot flying past me and I am getting drenched. The orientation to the hospital environment has been interesting. I have not spent a lot of time in hospitals in the past, so I am getting used to the sterile, clinical environment with the tile floors and bright lighting. St. Peters, like most hospitals, has been added on to over the years which makes it like a giant labyrinth. By Friday I pretty much had my bearings and could navigate around.
As Chaplain interns we have a strange, dual role. We are unpaid volunteers, but at the same time we are treated like staff. This hospital has been running the internship program for over 10 years, so the hospital staff is accustomed to the CPE students and generally treats them like the staff chaplains.
The hospital has a core of four full-time chaplains on staff, which is unusual and shows a strong commitment from the hospital administration for spiritual care of its patients, their families and the employees. Between the four staff chaplains, they have more than 100 years of combined experience as hospital chaplains, and they embrace the CPE students and take them under their wings. I feel so blessed to be working a hospital with such a seasoned chaplain core that is excited to share their wisdom and experience with us.
We have toured each of the units of the hospital with the staff chaplains and have tried to get a sense of what kinds of calls the chaplains get and what we might be able to expect. Starting next week, they turn us loose in the hospital and we start to field calls from the units. Monday night, I will be on call so if there are any requests for a chaplain from a patient, a family, or the nurses or staff of the hospital, I will be the one taking the call and responding. Am I ready for that? Can you ever be ready to meet a family who has lost or is losing a child, a mother, father, brother, sister or sit with a patient who is dying or be present when a trauma comes in to the emergency room? I think the answer to that question is no.
I am anxious, nervous, but also feeling a strong desire to do this. It is such a unique privilege to be with families and patients at these times, and I feel honored to share those moments, work to provide comfort, and acknowledge the presence of God in those situations.
Last night (Thursday), I attended a support group of parents who had lost children at birth. I sat around a table with couples who had experienced a loss that I could not even fathom. One couple had lost a child just a week and a half earlier, one had lost a child six months ago, and two couples were grieving the loss of children ten years ago. The grief in the room was palpable, tears were flowing, and people were actively mourning. This group is led by one of the grieving parents who serves as a facilitator. I probably learned more about grieving in this 2 hour session than I could have reading thousands of pages in a book or spending months in a classroom setting. The parents were so generous and kind by letting my observe and learn. They offered me advice as a chaplain, what had been said to them that was helpful, what had been said to them that was not helpful, and what had been said to them that was downright hurtful. They told me how much they appreciated my presence there and my desire to work as a pastor and chaplain, but I was the one who felt truly honored to be there and for them to let me participate and learn.
I have been riding my bike to and from the hospital, it is about 7 miles away from where I am staying. My bike ride home was a great opportunity for me to reflect and start to process my own reactions and feelings after spending time with these parents. I am told that much of the CPE experience involves a lot of introspection, digging deep and figuring out why I am responding the way that I am, what experiences in my own life I am drawing from to offer comfort, and doing a lot of self and soul searching. After last night, I am starting to understand why that is important.
Providing comfort to people at critical moments in their lives is something I am really looking forward to learning about. The strength of the parents who I met last night comes from sources that I cannot begin to comprehend. I pray that I will be able to do things to help people in their grieving process, whether that is providing comfort, an outlet for anger, or an acknowledgment of hope.