By Celine Klosterman
Late last year, Larry Dingman was suffering from a painful spinal infection that put him in “sheer misery.” Two operations later, the patient at Mercy Iowa City says he’s doing better — but not just thanks to the hospital’s doctors and nurses.
“The chaplains have been fantastic,” says the Catholic truck driver from Iowa City. “The best thing is that they’d talk with me and say, ‘You’re in my prayers,’ which may not sound like a lot, but it meant a lot to me… I think that’s part of the healing process.”
In the Davenport Diocese, the three Catholic hospitals — as do other hospitals — acknowledge spirituality’s potential by providing Masses and ecumenical services, in-house and home chaplains, and other offerings. The efforts not only comply with the U.S. bishops’ directive that Catholic health care institutions treat “the whole person,” but reflect research that has linked spiritual well-being to better immune function and quicker recovery.
With faith’s role in mind, Mercy Iowa City has for about 40 years done a spiritual assessment of inpatients, says Mark McDermott. He is director of pastoral care for the hospital and one of its four full-time chaplains, all lay Catholics. (Area priests and Sisters also visit the hospital, which has 9,500 inpatients annually.)
The assessment asks about emotional and spiritual issues patients are facing, the patients’ levels of faith, courage and other “inner resources,” and external supports such as a church community. Chaplains use that assessment to meet patients’ spiritual needs — perhaps by reading Scripture and praying with those who say they have no faith community nearby, McDermott says, or providing counseling.
“This stems from our mission that believes healing involves body, mind and spirit, all intimately connected,” he says. “We heal in the spirit of Jesus Christ, who healed the whole person — not just the physical ailment.”
Similarly, Mercy Medical Center in Clinton asks patients if they’d like to see a chaplain, and may document a review of patients’ church community, relationship with God, external support and coping skills. But chaplains automatically respond to code calls, deaths, traumas and high-risk transfers to provide spiritual support, says Judy Wallace, director of social services.
McDermott says he often senses emotional vulnerability in patients, who in the hospital are often more dependent than usual. “I’ll ask, would you like a prayer, and then all of a sudden the tears come,” he says.
Dingman, who was told by a doctor he “just about bought the farm,” can relate. “The experience has taught me a considerable amount about humility,” he says.
During such challenges, “there’s a need to be understood,” says McDermott. Patients need someone willing to listen and empathize, and “sometimes pastoral care is simply being that listening presence.”
“I get fulfillment out of helping someone feel understood,” he says.
Besides ministering to patients and hospital staffers, he and other Mercy Iowa City chaplains offer morning and evening prayer, daily worship service, a bereavement support group, Mass three days a week and ecumenical services four days a week. In Clinton, chaplains are available 24/7 at Mercy Medical Center, and Mass or services of the Word are offered five days a week.
Similarly, at Mercy Medical Center in Centerville, a hospital that has about 1,300 inpatients annually, Mass is celebrated monthly and an ecumenical service takes place in a nursing-home unit weekly, says Ann Young. She is vice president of community and staff relations.
Father Dennis Schaab, C.PP.S., pastor of Centerville’s St. Mary Catholic Church, is among area clergy who take turns ministering to patients each day.
LaVina Stepnoski says she appreciated his visits when a recent hospital stay kept her from attending daily Mass at St. Mary’s as usual.
“It was very important for me to have Communion,” she says. Fr. Schaab “helped me with everything I needed,” hearing her confession and praying with her.
Fr. Schaab says that even for people who’ve lapsed in their faith, religion can play a role in times of illness.
“I think in the hospital there’s a special openness on the part of people who haven’t been going to church,” he says. “It’s a time for them to be contacted, affirmed in their faith and welcomed back into their church community. That happens quite a bit.”