After my first brain surgery I remember lying in the neuro-ICU when a visitor came to the door.

The visitor announced herself as the hospital chaplain and said she “just wanted to come by” and see how I was doing.

I am not a religious person; in fact, I am the poster child for an agnostic view on god. But one thing I knew for certain was that chaplains were associated with religion. And they visited people who were dying.

If only I knew then the true role of the hospital chaplain I would have never turned her away.

The chaplain

When the chaplain appeared in my hospital room my mind immediately associated her presence with the experience of having other uninvited religious people appear at my door.

Don’t get me wrong; these are the nice people who knock at my door on Saturday mornings while I am still in my pajamas eating pancakes. However, these are nice people I do not want to talk to, who catch me by surprise, and somehow make me feel guilty for still wearing in pajamas while they are dressed up in church clothes.

I had assumed hospitals were like government—that there was a separation between church and health care. But now here was this uninvited guest in my hospital room while I was at my most vulnerable. I could not ignore her greeting like I could at home. I could not go on eating pancakes while sitting in my pajamas waiting for her to move on to the next house.

Was she going to talk to me about her god while I was imprisoned in this hospital bed?

The mere presence of this nice lady, the chaplain, made me afraid and angry.

I had heard of chaplains visiting people in the hospital, but those people were dying. Had my doctor sent this chaplain to see me because I was dying?

I was in a hospital bed. I had bandages all over my head, and tubes running out of every vein. I was not allowed to get out of the bed without being supervised by a nurse. I bet it looked like I was dying.

How come no one told me I was dying?

I told the chaplain I was fine.

The chaplain said she visits all patients admitted to the hospital, regardless of personal religious preferences. She said she was there to talk to anyone about their concerns, fears and spiritual needs, and she helps families navigate the unfamiliar bureaucracy of the hospital system. She gave me her card with her cell phone number on it. If there was anything I needed, I could call.

Yeah right. She wants to sell me on god.

After the chaplain left I called a nurse.

“What the hell was that all about?” I asked. “Am I dying?”

The nurse could tell I was upset. But rather than explain the role of the hospital chaplain she told me she would place a note in my medical record so that a chaplain would never visit me again. I agreed to this.

Chaplains: What they really do

It has been a little over eight years since I had that experience, and I just recently learned about the true role of a hospital chaplain.

The primary function of the chaplain is to recognize the spiritual and emotional needs of people coping with a serious moment in their life. Like, say, a recent brain surgery and cancer diagnosis.

Chaplains are not supposed to coerce anyone to come to believe in their particular brand of religion. They are supposed to respect your views and can help you find a chaplain who identifies with your beliefs. They can also take a secular outlook on spirituality, which would have been helpful for an agnostic person like myself.

Essentially, chaplains can act a bit like social workers and therapists, but help patients explore the spiritual and/or existentenial hardships of a life-threatening illness.

If only I had known then what I know now, I would have welcomed a chaplain into my room. In fact, I may have invited them in again. And again.

For more information on the role of the hospital chaplains and their credentials, I highly recommend this blog post by Danny Tomlinson on the CSU Institute for Palliative Care website.

Healthcare Hack: For patients who are having a hard time getting a referral to a health psychologist, chaplains may be a good substitute or exactly the right kind of help you need, and are often a free service of the hospital.