Spirituality may not be something you associate with the “organisational culture” of a hospital.
But St John of God Hospital in Bendigo has won praise for the pastoral and spiritual care if offers its patients.
But how do you provide spiritual care for a person? Our bodily needs might not be simple, but they are normally tangible.
Pastoral carers are presented with the less clear sphere of emotion and spirituality.
Sitting and listening seem to be the key, not just at St John’s but for pastoral carers and chaplains around Bendigo.
Pastoral carers say their work is part of treating patients as a whole person in a context in which the physical health of their body is prioritised, but research into the benefits or otherwise is relatively limited.
The whole person
St John of God pastoral services coordinator Lynda Wyles’ role is to support patients’ emotional and spiritual needs throughout their hospitalisation.
It may have begun with the order’s early sisters, but the care offered is not particular faith based.
“We have a very broad view of what spirituality means, or what spiritual needs mean,” Ms Wyles said.
“It’s the sorts of things where a person finds meaning and connection and their sense of identity.”
Where counselling might take a problem-focused approach, the spiritual and pastoral care the team offers seeks to support a patient as a person throughout their hospital experience.
“We’re not helping them solve problems, what doing is we’re helping them garner their own spiritual resources,” Ms Wyles said.
“We come from what is that person’s experience and how can we support them as a person through this, and help them identify what their inner resources are.”
Much of what Ms Wyles does is to listen. Or she might use symbols, such as a wooden bird, a wooden cross, or a velvet heart to bring comfort to patients.
It really depends on what the person needs.
Through this Ms Wyles sees patients find inner resources, strength and hope.
“While patients come into hospital because of illness, or because they have physical needs, we believe that our approach to healing and well-being isn’t just about those physical needs,” Ms Wyles said.
While patients come into hospital because of illness, or because they have physical needs, we believe that our approach to healing and well-being isn’t just about those physical needs.Lynda Wyles
“It’s one way of taking that whole-person care approach.”
Feeling listened to, peaceful, valued, accepted and respected were some of the ways patients in hospitals and aged care homes described the effect of pastoral care on their treatment experience.
Research from the Australian Catholic University in 2018 surveyed patients’ experience of pastoral care in aged care homes and hospitals across Australia.
The report acknowledged that research on the benefits of pastoral care was relatively limited. But high numbers of participating patients reported they felt they had benefited from meeting with a pastoral carer.
That amounted to 78 percent of hospital patients participating in pastoral care, and 80 percent in aged care.
Debbie Kesper, St John of God’s director of rehabilitation, feels “blessed” to have a team of pastoral carers working alongside medical staff.
The rehabilitation unit works towards restoring patients’ independence, both physical and psychological.
To do this takes a wide range of expertise. Speech therapists, occupational therapists, dietitians, doctors, specialised nurses, doctors and pastoral carers are among the team that work towards this end.
Often those in rehabilitation have undergone trauma.
But the focus for the unit is getting that person back to their best level of independence after what might have been a long time in hospital, dependent on others’ care.
In Dr Kesper’s experience pastoral workers offer a care complementary to that of medical staff.
It can be social or family support, it can be diversional therapy, it can be spiritual support, or it can be enrichment.
“It means that patients don’t feel like they’re only focused on that medical management, or that physical management,” Dr Kesper said.
“They’re able to express their fears or concerns in an appropriate way and get support emotionally.”
Pastoral carers aren’t the only hospital workers supporting patients’ spiritual wellbeing.
The manager of pastoral care at Bendigo Health Karen Lunney works with a team of more than 20 chaplains, mostly volunteers, from a range of faiths.
The team provides four things: a listening presence, emotional support, spiritual guidance, and prayer and ritual.
It’s a service open to people of any faith, or no faith.
Mrs Lunney drew a contrast between the health-focus of much hospital work, and the presence of a chaplain. In hospital often people have things taken from them like blood, or tests. A chaplain might just sit and listen.
“Spiritual care is very much part of holistic, whole healthcare,” Mrs Lunney said.
“When we are dealing with a person in hospital, we’re not just dealing with the current issue or complaint that they have come in with, but there may be lots of other things that are on their mind.”
Anglican minister Terry Templer spends four days a week as chaplain at the Bendigo Hospital and aged care units. He’s on call 24 hours a day, should someone want end of life support or sacraments.
Reverend Templer visits those who nominate themselves as Anglican, or who request, or are referred to, pastoral care.
Sometimes he’s called to people with the big questions, but often patients just want a listening ear.
He sees many people are shaken by illness, and left vulnerable. They might want someone to explore the issues that has raised, or just acknowledge that they’re in a “rotten situation”.
To Reverend Templer it’s a privilege to minister to these people. It’s a unique opportunity – “the chance that you might be something in the person’s life that even for that small moment takes them out of where they’re at, and gives them a chance to be at peace,” Reverend Templer said.
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