The image of a hospital chaplain is pretty standard.
A man in a collared shirt slips into the patient’s room as machines beep and hiss. A stole is kissed and placed over the back of the neck. Oil is applied to the patient’s forehead, and a prayer is muttered. Maybe a squeeze of a hand and a word whispered in an ear. Then, the chaplain quietly slips away.
“That’s Hollywood,” said Mario Valadez, manager of spiritual care with Dignity Health in the East Valley. “This is not Hollywood.”
Chaplains do provide spiritual care, but the reality can be more raw than that. They deal with illness, death, uncertainty, doubt and fear. Often, chaplains become counselors of a sort, a sounding board for patients and families at a critical time in their lives.
“Chaplains are trained to help any person. Those of faith, or no faith or little faith,” said Valadez, who oversees 10 chaplains at both Chandler Regional and Mercy Gilbert medical centers.
Chaplains are primarily Protestant or Catholic, but are trained in different traditions, such as Muslim, Jewish, Baha’i, Buddhist, Jehovah’s Witness, Native American, Mormon, even atheist.
“There’s no agenda of me sharing my faith with you,” Valadez said. “I have to find out what you have as values.”
Chaplains are from all walks of life. All have gone through seminary and some are certified in clinical pastoral education.
“The primary reason one comes in is to help and be compassionate to those in pain and suffering,” said David Yanez, chaplain at Banner Baywood Medical Center and Banner Heart Hospital in Mesa.
“You have to be compassionate and giving. If not, you shouldn’t be here. If you’re not sympathetic (to their belief system), you can at least listen,” Yanez added. “You need to meet them where they are.”
‘Why God?’ precedes a call
Gene Sellards is an on-call pastor for Tempe St. Luke’s Hospital and St. Luke’s Medical Center in Phoenix.
“I make myself available for anybody who has spiritual issues,” he said. “The main thing is being available.”
For some hospital patients, it’s a time to confront the big questions.
“They’re lying in bed,” Valadez said, “and it may be the very first time they ask, ‘Why, God?’ That’s when we get a phone call.”
The most difficult cases Valadez sees are unexpected deaths.
“Those are the most challenging, personally,” he said. “That’s the hardest.”
He cited child drownings, or sudden heart attacks. He recalls one time being called in on Christmas Day.
“A father with two young kids and a wife was opening presents,” he said. “Suddenly, he has a cardiac arrest and dies. That’s tough.
“For the rest of their lives, that’s their Christmas memory. Nothing you say could take away the pain.”
When he was a chaplaincy student, Valadez’s first case was a trauma call. A nurse asked him to join the family as a man who had been in an automobile accident was brought in through Emergency.
He saw the man on a gurney with gruesome injuries, and it was apparent that he was not going to survive.
“I had to see that, then go be with the family, his two daughters,” he said. “I walked in, and they knew it was not a good outcome.
“I didn’t know the rawness of that, what I’d be getting into. But somehow, by the grace of God, I’m still here.”
Yanez, who retired from the Air Force, says he feels the most conflict when he steps into a difficult family situation.
“It doesn’t always happen, but sometimes there is a difference of opinion, even when there’s something written down,” he said.
“The family may be at odds with what to do with a loved one. It could be that Dad said no machines, but some want to keep him alive. I have to be an umpire, arbitrator between both sides,” he said.
Valadez sometimes acts as a mediator in family meetings with medical personnel.
“When you get that diagnosis, say a cancer diagnosis, sometimes the family is like a deer in the headlights. I might interrupt and say, ‘We need time to digest this information.’
“You have to step in for the family,” Valadez said.
Sellards has been at bedside during end-of-life situations. “About a dozen times,” he said.
“I’ve had to get to somebody’s bedside so we can say a prayer before we unplug. That’s tough, too, because the minute you leave, all the wires and plugs are pulled, and that person is off to eternity, whatever way they’re going. That’s not up to us to decide.”
At those times, he said, his ministry reaches more than the patient.
“The family needs it worse than the one passing away,” he said.
All chaplains have to deal with stressed patients and families.
Yanez said, “They want me to share scripture and prayer, especially when they’re withdrawing care. If they’re fearful, you talk about their fear. They often have fear, anxiety, doubt. They want peace with God.
“More than 50 percent of the people I talk to are not attending church. They have kind of been forgotten – I hate to stay that.”
Valadez said, “We don’t go talk to the family, we go listen to them.”
Impact hard to know
That said, chaplains don’t always know whether they’ve helped people in the long run.
“It’s hard to tell the impact you’ve had,” Valadez said. “I hope I’ve blessed people.
“Once, I was shopping at Target, and somebody looked at me, and she started crying. She said, ‘Chaplain Mario?’ I didn’t remember her. I’ve seen hundreds of families. But she remembered me.
“She said, ‘You were there for me and my family when my husband died. We’ll never forget you,’
“You become part of their forever memory.”
He’s also comforted those that wouldn’t seem to want a chaplain – atheists.
“One woman, an atheist, said, ‘You were so helpful, how you were present with me.’
“It’s always a great reminder that we all have this human experience. Even if you can’t relate on a religious level, you can relate on a human level,” Valadez said.
Atheists reach out to Yanez also.
“They want to know, ‘Could there be something to God?’”
He has been present for deathbed conversions, too. “But those are not pushed,” he said.
Doctors seek help, too
The patients and families aren’t the only ones who need a little assistance. Doctors and nurses face their own struggles with compassion fatigue – burnout.
“We try to help them find renewal,” Valadez said. “Doctors appreciate what we do.”
Doctors don’t often approach them for spiritual help, but many do participate in a Blessing of the Hands, a prayer said for safety and skill of a doctor.
“They are appreciative,” he said.
Not all of a chaplain’s work is so dire.
Sellards’ sensitivity to patients’ needs brought an unexpectedly humorous moment.
“I always try to make sure if they’re looking for a priest or a pastor,” he said.
“One time, I got a call, and I said, ‘Do they want a pastor or priest?’ They said, ‘I’ll check.’
“The guy came back on the line and said, ‘You’ll do.’”
Yanez has been part of a few happier occasions at Banner Baywood.
“I have performed weddings here – not too much,” he said.
In fact, the Tribune reported on a wedding ceremony Yanez performed at Banner Baywood a few years ago. A Florida couple got married so the bride’s ailing mother could witness the ceremony.
Susan and Eliu Irizarry tied the knot in the intensive care unit, where Susan’s mother was receiving treatment for a life-threatening illness. The couple had been planning to get married in Las Vegas, but the bride wasn’t sure her mother would be able to hold on.
Yanez described the ceremony as “very intimate and personal.”
Sellards became a chaplain late in life.
He retired from his own sports-related retail business and was looking to dive deeper into his faith. He got a master’s degree in Biblical leadership and now ministers in jails, institutions, and retirement and nursing homes, along with St. Luke’s.
He views his service as a gift from God.
“The Lord’s opened a lot of doors for me,” he said.
Volunteering is important to him.
“If you’re on a payroll, you’re obligated. If you’re a volunteer, you want to be available,” he said.
“The blessing is all mine from volunteering. I wouldn’t do it for money. I wouldn’t have near the interest in pay than I have in doing it for nothing.
“My payday comes later,” he chuckled.