A visit to restore

Hospital visitation is a ministry of restoration and assurance.

George R. Robie, D.Min., is the chaplain of Sacred Heart Hospital, Eau Claire, Wisconsin.

Health care today is characterized by shorter hospitalization and more outpatient procedures. As a result, nurses and technicians have less time to complete their tasks. Patients feel this pressure to get the job done as quickly as possible, and many interpret it as an assault upon their dignity.

Pastoral visitors, by their actions and style of ministry, can help patients retain their dignity in an environment that is complex, hurried, mysterious, and often threatening. Here are some specific approaches that clergy and laypeople can use to make a patient's hospital stay more personable.

Respect privacy

As you approach the patient's room, keep in mind that you are entering his or her bedroom. More than likely there has been a steady stream of nurses, therapists, technicians, and doctors in and out. These are people whose job is invasive: they poke, prod, pry, listen for sounds, diagnose, and give medicine that seems to taste bad. As a pastoral caregiver you, on the other hand, are not there to do something to the patient. You are there to lift up values and considerations that often get lost in the rush of daily activities.

Knock and ask permission to enter the patient's room. This is important whether the door is open or closed. Staff may seem to enter and leave at will, but your act of knocking and asking permission to visit may help the patient recognize that he or she does have control over some matters at least. Knocking is a way of letting the patient know that you respect privacy and a person's rights. It also gives the patient a moment to cover up or adjust the bedclothes.

Introduce yourself

Telling the patient who you are may be important even if you know the patient well. The reason is that being hospitalized in an unfamiliar environment can produce some disorientation. Also, the patient may be receiving medication that affects cognitive function for a short time, producing a reaction similar to coming out from under the effects of anesthesia. In addition, some illnesses like stroke or TIA (transient ischemic attack) can impair memory or the processing of information. Further more, if you haven't seen the person for some time he or she may not recognize you. Introducing yourself also indicates that you are interested in taking the first step to establish a personal relationship with the patient during the time you will be visiting. Also remember to introduce yourself to relatives or friends who are present.

Visit eye-to-eye

Reduce the space between yourself and the patient. Walk over to the bed but don't sit on it. In some cases that may cause physical pain or be interpreted as a violation of personal space. Ask the patient if you may pull up a chair and sit down. This will let the patient know you are willing to invest some time and energy in the visit. Re member the situation in which the patient finds himself or herself. Health care workers have spent considerable time leaning over and looking down at the patient while he or she looks at the ceiling. Sitting down and visiting eye-to-eye is incarnational in the sense that by doing so the pastoral visitor commits himself or herself to meaningful personal interest.

Define why you are there

Remember that the hospital patient, significant others, and hospital staff don't necessarily know why you are there. Every pastoral visitor arrives with an agenda in mind. Make sure to clarify for yourself why you are there and what you want to accomplish. Share that information with the patient. Then the goal is to help the patient discover and work on his or her agenda. As a pastoral caregiver, remember that the goal is to deal with the needs and concerns of the patient rather than to address one's own personal issues.

Sharing a ministry

Your visit is a ministry. In sharing that ministry, touch can become a precious experience. Touch is a means of confirming dignity and worth in the midst of illness. By using gentle touch you can affirm a person at a time when he or she may feel unacceptable. Touch is powerful when it is combined with prayer. Invite the patient and others present, including hospital staff, to join hands and form a prayer circle.

Prayer, of course, can become an escape mechanism. By this I mean you think to yourself, I've said all there is to say. I don't know what to talk about any longer, so I might as well pray and get out of here. Rather than using prayer as a tidy way of exiting, I suggest you use it as an interlude. Insert it in the middle of a visit. Pray when you feel a mile stone has been reached or a roadblock encountered. Use spontaneous prayer to speak to the issues and concerns that you and the patient have just been dis cussing. Such an approach has the potential to propel the remainder of your visit in new and exciting directions. When praying during pastoral visits, remember that the patient has rights. Just because you represent the church, do not automatically assume the patient wants you to pray. Ask.

Leave your card

Just as there are times when certain patients will not recognize you, there will also be times when certain patients will not remember you were there. So, bring something from your church with you. When the visit has ended leave a church bulletin, devotional, or audiotape of the worship service. You may also wish to leave your calling card. Whatever you leave, write your name on it along with the date and time of visit. Doing so is an important part of your ministry to the patient's family.

Every pastoral caregiver develops his or her own unique style of visitation. The approaches offered here are not meant to supplant your style. In stead, they are tools that can strengthen and enrich the work you already do. They need not be adopted en masse. Perhaps only one or two of them will speak to your situation. Take what you need, add some of your own approaches to the list, and pass it on to your friends. As the network grows, encourage others to do the same. In this way the ministry of hospital visitation will receive a continuous supply of fresh ideas and energy. So will the patients. Re member, hospital visitation is a precious responsibility. Those who are en trusted to our care deserve the best.

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George R. Robie, D.Min., is the chaplain of Sacred Heart Hospital, Eau Claire, Wisconsin.

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