Doctors and nurses do remarkable work. So do social workers and counselors. But the one member of the team that is often overlooked—or altogether absent—is the chaplain.
Before returning to Africa last November to take over a large AIDS mission, I studied to become a board-certified hospital chaplain. It was a life-changing experience.
I completed a residency at the Center for Palliative Care at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City and chose to work on the oncology floor. That’s where you come face-to-face with suffering and death every day. Sometimes the pain is physical. Sometimes it’s the pain of regret or loneliness. That’s when the role of spirituality in meeting patient needs became ever more clear to me.
During one of my rounds, I met a man baptized Catholic but no longer a churchgoer. We started talking about his family, the annual ski trips with the kids to Aspen, and how much those experiences meant to him. I visited him over several weeks, and he shared his thoughts about the meaning of life—his life. One day without my urging, he said he wanted to receive Communion. He left this world a reconciled Catholic.
“Sometimes the pain is physical. Sometimes it’s the pain of regret or loneliness. That’s when the role of spirituality in meeting patient needs became ever more clear to me.”
Palliative care that includes a chaplain is important for another reason: Recovering patients who see a chaplain to address their needs—spiritual or otherwise—spend less time in hospitals and require fewer ancillary services. A colleague of mine once said, “You can’t practice excellent patient care if you don’t practice excellent spiritual care.” She was right.
Now I am head of the Eastern Deanery AIDS Relief Program in Nairobi, Kenya, applying all that I learned about palliative care in the States. Right now we have 25,000 people in treatment in 14 clinics staffed by 370 professionals and aided by over 300 dedicated volunteers.
A cure for AIDS is still in the future. But with more people receiving anti-retroviral treatment, they are living longer. Among the other services we offer are prenatal care, a protocol for the prevention of mother-to-child transmission, well-baby clinics, and counseling.
Before my arrival, integrated spiritual care was not really part of medical care. Now it will be. And I will be able study how spiritual care impacts treatment and outcomes. This will take 18-24 months but I believe the results are going to alter the delivery of healthcare in Kenya, and maybe all of Africa.
People often ask me, “Father, how do you cope with the ups and downs of caregiving?” It’s my faith—and my absolute belief in the Resurrection—that sees me through. I also know that you are praying for me, and that is a gift I treasure. I could not take on this new mission without your support. God bless you for caring and for making my work in Nairobi a sign of hope for all those who will grace my life.
~ Father Richard Bauer, M.M.