Hooked On Hospice

Working for hospice is like following the progression of about forty different plays at once. What unexpected or surprising thing will one of my forty or so patients casually drop in her conversation with me today? What new realization will I come away with? What will I learn this week about the country the patient is from or what new Spanish expression will they teach me? Which staff members will suddenly materialize at my side as I start to sing to a patient as he sways his foot in rhythm to the music?

No question hospice can be sad, but I am always a sucker for the drama involved among my patients. I get to cut to the chase and see the final act play out all the time! You might say the final act is always known so what is there to be curious about? But that would be like saying the same about any serious opera and therefore not see them. And when the patients or families reminisce, I even get to hear flashbacks of other climactic moments in the earlier “acts” of their lives.

I am not sure why this is so, but I am so dreadfully curious in comparison with most people. I always wonder what the next patient admitted will be like. I might meet a fellow writer. I might meet someone with a career I never heard of before. I definitely will meet people from all backgrounds, from people who have heard of my home town of Erie, Pennsylvania, to someone whose country I myself have not heard of. From the most vocal atheist to the most ardent fundamentalist, to a white American Muslim to a Hindu. From the straightest couple to the gayest, the whitest to the blackest, the one with no children to one with fourteen of them. I will come across the patient who wants solitude and the one who craves society; the one who is agitated and resentful and the one who is calm and humorous.

The staff members who end up staying with hospice have their stories too. One nurse has worked at hospices for over thirty years. Hospice staff have traversed the paths that have brought them to this offbeat career. Best of all, they understand why in the world I would do this kind of work. I do not have to explain. We fit in with each other even as we are seen by some people outside of our circle as misfits to shudder at.

If nothing else, this job gives me so much to think about. Mortality and spiritual values, sure, but so much more, as readers familiar with this blog have seen for the past six years. If you are new to offbeatcompassion, have a look at the past few posts. If by any chance you are pondering an unconventional direction in your career, by all means make a comment here or contact me with questions. My email is karenbookmankaplan@gmail.com, and my twitter link is https://twitter.com/chaplainkkaplan

Death of the Hospice Chaplain Profession?

Off the record, a colleague of mine with decades of hospice experience predicted to me that the government would eventually get rid of the requirement that hospices hire chaplains. This particularly caught me off guard because I had just procured such a position with Center for Hope Hospice in Elizabeth, NJ. He elaborated that “the government wants to save money. They say America is becoming more secularized anyway, and so chaplains aren’t needed all that much.”

Not that my shiny new job offer was about to vanish and “go gentle into that good night,” but I was nettled by the government’s alleged viewpoint. We are the lonely profession, wanting to weep with frustration that “nobody understands us!” Picture yourself as a patient. When a health professional comes to you, it is usually centered around some task to perform, some agenda on their part. To give you meds. To ask you about family dynamics. To find out your food preferences. When a chaplain appears, if they are doing their job well, they are doing no particular job. As agendaless as possible, they wait to see whatever it is you care to bring to the fore, anything from “I don’t want to see a chaplain” to “This is what my life has been about” to “Why am I still here?” to “I’m ready to let go but my daughter isn’t” to simply sharing some spiritually-charged quiet as rain pelts the bedroom window and a heater clangs out its protest.

The government, with plenty of agendas to go around, shies away from moments that elude definition….and people that elude definition, well, you know, such as chaplains.

Meanwhile chaplain organizations exhort chaplains to perform research that proves that having us as part of the healthcare team makes for better health care “outcomes.” This is a fear reaction, that yes, chaplains might very well be dispensed with. We better prove that our encounters have a quantifiable effect. Too bad that society cannot take it on faith that some ineffable good arises out of an “I-Thou” relationship between the patient and the chaplain.

And secularization? That is beside the point. It is a rare offer when someone is willing to cede some of their comfortable space to you and dwell in your land of suffering no matter how brief the sojourn.