Over the hospital intercom at Franciscan St. Francis Health-Indianapolis, a “code blue” announcement calls staff members to a patient emergency.
Doctors rush to the emergency room to repair the physical damage caused by a heart attack, a car accident or a sudden fall. Nurses join them to care for wounds, record vital signs and assist the physicians.
And, just as important in the health care hierarchy, chaplains rush to the scene. These trained professionals will focus on the families and loved ones of the patient, ensuring their questions are answered and their concerns managed during a scary and stressful time.
While hospitals are considered a center for physical wellness and care, an underappreciated aspect of the healing process includes spiritual counseling. That care can be just as important as the medicine and surgery they receive.
“The healing is in the relationship, the listening, the hearing of a story,” said Marilyn Williams, who took over as the director of spiritual care for Franciscan St. Francis Health in December. “A doctor can go in and do surgery and fix the physical heart. What we do is listen to the symbolic heart.”
Williams initially thought she’d be on the other side of the health care system.
As an undergraduate, she earned her degree in chemistry and biology with plans to be a physician. She was involved in cancer research but eventually decided to move to the administrative side of health care.
The Williams file
Occupation: Spiritual care director for Franciscan St. Francis Health
Experience: Director of pastoral care at St. Mary’s Health in Evansville; chaplain for Memorial Health Care System in Chattanooga, Tenn.
Education: Master’s degree in theological studies from Spring Hill College in Mobile, Ala.; master’s degree in hospital and health services administration from the University of Alabama in Birmingham.
Other affiliations: Is an oblate for Sacred Heart Monastery in Cullman, Ala., serving as a lay member of the monastic community.
Williams worked for 20 years in health care management after earning her master’s degree in hospital administration.
“I became concerned over that time that more and more what we were doing was not improving people’s health, that it was the medical care system and not health care,” Williams said.
At the same time, she became interested in the holistic way of healing people, doing so more fully than just sick care. The spiritual aspect, in particular, stuck out to her.
Williams had been in the midst of her own spiritual journey. She had become active with Sacred Heart Monastery, a Benedictine community in Cullman, Ala. Trained as an oblate, she worked closely with the faith-based activities of the monastery while maintaining her lay life.
“Through that, Benedictine spirituality led me to want to serve the people of God, through the ministry part,” Williams said.
She investigated chaplaincy and entered the program. She earned a master’s degree in theological studies, completed a year residency in a clinical pastoral education program and became certified to be a spiritual care provider.
“I got tired of hospital care, went all the way around and ended up right back in it,” she said.
Her experience with both hospital management and spiritual care is what made her stand out to Franciscan St. Francis Health officials, said Sister Marlene Shapley, vice president of mission services.
From Williams’ point of view, the work of chaplains is a continuation of the healing tradition started by the Franciscan ministry hundreds of years ago. That tradition looked at holistic healing — caring for the body, mind and spirit at the same time.
“While we obviously want to return people to a better state of physical health whenever possible, that healing is not the same as curing. Healing is much bigger and broader than that,” Williams said.
The popular image of chaplains is of religious people coming into someone’s hospital room to pray. But anyone can pray with a patient, from family members to nurses to those who deliver their food.
Chaplains will pray with a patient but also help counsel, listen and advise.
“A lot of what we do is walk with patients on their journeys. We’re the people in health care who have the time to sit and listen to how a person got to this point in their life,” Williams said.
Occasionally, chaplains reach out to a patient and the priest, minister or other clergy member at the patient’s home church. If the person wants to take Communion or needs to go through the Catholic sacrament of the Annointing of the Sick, the spiritual care team can arrange that.
Much of the job is not related to any one denomination or faith. Chaplains go through rigorous training to deal with patients of all faiths and those who are atheist or agnostic, Williams said.
Often, chaplains are called when discussing the type of end-of-life treatments a patient wants. They start the conversation about if the patient can no longer make decisions about care, what would they want to do.
As patients near death, spiritual care experts come to walk them and their family through the initial stages of the grief that comes with that.
When a patient comes to the emergency department, chaplains can be the bridge between the family and the doctors.
“We’re not there for religious reasons, necessarily. We’re there to be present for them, to make sure their concerns are addressed and the information is communicated between the two,” Williams said.
Chaplains help heal relationships in the patients’ families, particularly if the patient is suffering through a potentially deadly situation. They assist patients coming to terms after being diagnosed with a chronic illness that will greatly alter their lifestyle.
“What we can do is help a person use their beliefs, their spirituality, maybe their religion, about how they’re going to live with this now, and do it with grace and a positive attitude,” Williams said. “At the time when a new diagnosis comes through, that doesn’t seem possible.”
Chaplains also work with doctors, nurses and other hospital staff to help them work through difficult cases or losses that have affected them.
Since starting in December, Williams has gone to work organizing the hospital’s team of chaplains and maintaining the level of care they had provided prior to her arrival.
Though each chaplain already has committed to the value of spiritual care, Williams has made sure to emphasize just how important their mission is every day they come to work.
“You walk with people in some of the most intimate times and moments. What can be more intimate than getting the diagnosis that you have cancer? Or to walk with a family who just lost the matriarch of the family,” Williams said. “It’s a privilege.”