During the last week of October, we celebrate Spiritual Care Week, which gives us an opportunity to celebrate our spiritual caregivers here a Swedish. To help us understand a little more about the work of spiritual care and the role it plays in healing, we spoke with Rev. Deborah Thompson, manager of spiritual care here at Swedish. Rev. Thompson has served in spiritual care here at Swedish for 16 years. After a career in finance, she discerned a call to ministry, completing her master’s in divinity studies, followed by Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) residency at Swedish. Deborah joined the Swedish Spiritual Care department as a staff chaplain and is now the department manager. Rev. Thompson shared with us her thoughts on the many ways spiritual caregivers build hope and resilience, affirm the essential work of Swedish caregivers and their importance to their patients and the communities they serve.
What does spiritual care mean in a healthcare setting? How does it fit into the healing process and what makes Swedish an institution that supports spiritual care and spiritual caregivers?
Swedish has a long history of valuing care for the whole person. In caring for patients, their loved ones, or caregivers, that care must include body, mind and spirit. Without any one of those, we are missing a part of the whole, integrated person. An individual may have a formal religious or spiritual understanding, or a personal acknowledgement of something greater than or outside of oneself. There is a spirit in each of us that finds a source of meaning or connection. Our spirit or spirituality can be a source of strength for healing, and a lens through which we view and understand illness.
What kinds of care does the team here at Swedish offer?
Spiritual care, or spiritual health care, can take on as many forms as there are persons in our healthcare setting. Chaplains do not have an agenda when we meet an individual or their loved ones. We listen with compassion and curiosity. We seek to understand what is meaningful for that individual. If a patient is nearing end of life, we work with them and their loved ones to assure that any important end of life practices are carried out and honored. We often work with patients and families to coordinate visits by their community spiritual leaders who provide unique spiritual practices and a familiarity that is comforting. Care interventions may include prayer or sacred texts, guided meditation, or a chaplain creating a safe, listening space.
On our First Hill campus, two of our chaplains provide canine-assisted care for patients and caregivers. In the course of their daily work, chaplains are integral members of code response teams, providing compassionate support to patients as well as caregivers. They also offer opportunities for caregivers to debrief in the wake of difficult or traumatic experiences. We regularly provide Tea for the Soul for Swedish caregivers. Chaplains set up a calm space in a break room on a unit or department. Caregivers are invited to take a few minutes in the space to speak with a chaplain, or to enjoy a few minutes of quiet with a cup of hot tea and chocolate or other snacks. Two of our chaplains have designed and piloted another caregiver experience, Nature for the Soul. The focus of this initiative is to address chronic caregiver distress and provide an opportunity for caregivers to connect with the natural world for coping and self-care.
Chaplains have partnered with other disciplines to champion a Critical Incident Response Team at Swedish. Several chaplains will be receiving training to prepare them to volunteer as members of a Critical Incident Response Team that will be piloted during 2023.
Can you tell us a little about the team?
We currently have a team of 23 chaplains serving five Swedish campuses, who are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week for spiritual care needs. They represent a variety of spiritual backgrounds and work together to help provide continuity of spiritual support throughout an individual’s hospital stay. Our team members are all professional chaplains who have master’s degrees and who have completed Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) to prepare for this work. CPE is a professional chaplaincy internship and residency program that is completed in a healthcare setting. Staff chaplains at Swedish have completed the strenuous requirements to earn Board Certification or are pursuing certification. Outside of the hospital, many of the chaplains have leadership roles in local spiritual communities; they volunteer with local nonprofit organizations and serve in community advisory roles. One of our chaplains is a military chaplain who serves in a U.S. Army Reserve unit. Several of our chaplains have specific training and serve on the Ethics Committee and Ethics Consultation team. Other team members participate in the Peer-to-Peer program, connecting trained peer supporters with physicians or advance practice medical staff who are referred to the program.
Rev. Deborah Thompson, manager of spiritual care at Swedish
What if I’m a patient who does not come to a specific faith tradition; can spiritual care help me or my loved ones?
Yes, it can. Our education, as well as ongoing training and learning, help us to gain an understanding of a wide range of spiritualities. Chaplains engage with you and your loved ones to understand your individual spirituality, to assess for spiritual needs and strengths, and to support you in meaning-making and even decision-making. We seek to help you and your loved ones to recognize your own coping tools that you can lean into in times of uncertainty or crisis.
This year’s theme is “Relevant and Responsive in Times of Crisis.” Tell us a little about what that has meant and looked like during COVID and how it has helped caregivers and patients move through the pandemic.
As hospitals and entire communities went into lockdown our patients and colleagues became isolated. Our chaplains continued to work in the hospital, providing support to patients and colleagues, alike. We shifted some of our care to electronic platforms like Zoom or Teams. When personal protective equipment (PPE) was in short supply, technology helped us to communicate with our patients who were in isolation rooms, and to connect patients with their loved ones who could not visit them. When we could no longer gather with caregiver to provide Tea for the Soul, we made packets of tea, sweets and encouraging words to deliver to the caregivers. Chaplains ultimately began mobile Tea for the Soul, delivering tea, candy and snacks. and connecting one-on-one with caregivers throughout the medical centers, providing care from six feet away, or from the other side of a door, while wearing PPE required that chaplains find new ways of being present. Chaplains are creative in the work that we do because we are always supporting the needs of unique individuals. That creativity helped our team to work together, and to develop skills in technology that will benefit our patients and their loved ones for years to come.
What’s the difference between spiritual and pastoral care?
In our secular healthcare setting, there is no difference. For those who do not identify with a religious or spiritual affiliation, the word pastor or pastoral may be a barrier. The term pastor is commonly used for an individual who responsible for the care and teaching within a local spiritual or religious community. Although many members of our team serve in a local spiritual community, we live in a region where individuals are more likely to answer “None” or “No Preference” when asked to identify their faith or spiritual affiliation.
Can you share with us an experience you’ve had as a spiritual caregiver that’s affected you professionally and personally?
Many years ago, I received a referral to visit a patient who was expected to live only a few more days. The patient said that she was ready to die, and she had regular visits from her family. When I met this patient, she shared that she was ready to die. At her request, I prayed with her. When I asked if there was anything else I could do to support her, she paused, then asked me, “Will you remember my story?” Her family’s history had been passed down in oral stories for generations, and she wasn’t sure that her grandchildren would continue to hold onto those stories. Over the next two days she shared stories about her life. She knew that I would not be passing her stories to anyone else, but she also knew that I was listening to her and that I truly saw who she was. I have never shared her stories, but I will never forget how peaceful she seemed the last time that I saw her. She taught me the power of listening deeply. She taught me that being present to her, even without words, was enough.
What advice might you have for a patient or loved one who feels they could benefit from spiritual care, but isn’t sure where to start?
Chaplains are members of the interdisciplinary care teams on our hospital units. One of our chaplains may simply come by to check in with you and to introduce her/himself. If you sense a need, ask your nurse to request a visit from a chaplain. Chaplains are compassionate and nonjudgmental and would be honored to explore even “I’m not sure” with a patient or their loved ones. Together, you and the chaplain can determine whether or how spiritual care may be helpful to you.
Providence, a Catholic organization, recently merged with Swedish. Do I have to be a Catholic to receive spiritual care at Swedish?
Swedish retains its secular identity, and it continues to value spiritual care as part of its care for the whole person. Our professional chaplains are available to provide spiritual care support to persons of any, or no, faith or spiritual affinity.