Hospital chaplains see fear, uncertainty but also hope, faith

August 07, 2020

August 7, 2020

Rob Schettler, James Gunn and Rich Bassett don’t have medical degrees and none of the three claim any kind of expertise in treatments or procedures.

But their presence and compassion can be equally important to patients who are facing fear and uncertainty. They listen, provide spiritual guidance and do it every day with a smile and a willingness to help.

“When someone comes here to the hospital, we are treating their body for an ailment or an illness. And hopefully there is an opportunity to treat and cure,” Gunn said. “But there is also a soul that I believe is there and we want to make sure we know who we are caring for and the beliefs that drives and moves that person. We are always trying to understand our patients and advocate for them.”

The three Baptist Health Floyd chaplains are always available to both staff and patients to listen to, pray with and give advice if asked. There are days when they feel the weight of the world on their shoulders. But they always stay true to their mission … they are here to do God’s work.

“Sometimes I walk away amazed and thankful, or with my tail between my legs because it’s been a war,” Schettler said. “But I come back in the next day inspired. Every day is an adventure at the hospital. No two days are alike.”

They know they are making a difference in the lives of both patients and staff.

“One thing I really appreciate from this place is that from the top down, we are appreciated,” Bassett said. “There is a value on spiritual care and I feel valued by the leadership of this hospital. There is an honor for being here and to do my best here. I want to do my best.”

The chaplains not only go where they are summoned during their shifts, but they also do a lot of “rounding,” going from room to room, floor to floor, checking on patients and staff.

“We are always trying to sharpen the art of listening. That is so important to every aspect of care in a hospital,” Gunn said.

Schettler has been at Baptist Health Floyd for six years after spending 16 years at Hospice. He said the calling to become a chaplain found him after he graduated from the seminary in 1998.

“My training supervisor invited me to interview with Hospice and that is how I got my feet wet. It’s been a love and passion since that discovery,” he said. “It’s been an interesting journey for sure.”

He said he does a lot of praying each day to “get in the right mindset.”

“I remind myself I am here for them and not me. I really have to hone in on that every morning to make sure I can be fully present with people,” he said. “Some days I do it very well and some days I don’t.”

Gunn once volunteered at Baptist Health Floyd, did a residency at Norton Healthcare and returned to Baptist four years ago.

“What is so unique about this place is a lot of our community comes here to find healing,” he said. “You have to put a high value to care for yourself in this work and show mercy to yourself. There is a desire to get it all figured out but it’s a journey. There is a lot more beauty and color to it if you have more people along for the trip.

“I leave this place sometimes on the mountaintop or sometimes in the deepest valley, and everywhere in between.”

Bassett spends a lot of his days in the Emergency Department where his office is located. He also takes care of pre- and post-op patients, neuro-heart unit and observation.

In a department where seconds sometimes are the difference between life and death, he said he keeps his distance until the time is right to intervene with a patient.

“Everyone jumps into action and calling the chaplain is not the first thing,” Bassett said. “Sometimes they do but there have been times when events have happened and I just happen to come upon it.

“I always stand at the door and say I am available. With people coming into the emergency room, we don’t know their COVID status so we are staying out of the way until a diagnosis is made.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has made the role of a hospital chaplain even more challenging, especially during the height of the pandemic. The three chaplains can no longer just walk into a patient’s room and are sometimes the go-between with the patient and family members.

“I make phone calls to a patient’s family member and give them support because they can’t come in. Or I call into a patient’s room and talk to them,” Schettler said. “But a lot of the COVID [pandemic] is staff support. The staff is overwhelmed, not only with what they are doing but also for their family because they are afraid they are taking the virus home. There are multiple layers how to care and step in.”

With family members not being allowed to visit, one of his most important tasks is to give the patient a “physical presence so that hopefully we are bringing peace to that room and that individual.”

“One of the ways we try to do that in these difficult times is use of the intercom in ICU to pray for them. We have also used the Zoom app to get that set up and bring to the patient’s room so they can talk to their priest or pastor and I think they appreciate that,” he said.

The three said it’s important that everyone who enters the hospital, either as a patient or employee, knows that they are there to help, to listen and to ease burdens.

“The staff needs that presence, someone to cry to or talk to,” Schettler said. “The peace of staff is being a non-judgmental presence. We are not here to judge anybody. For them to feel comfortable to say how they feel and whatever they feel allows them to get it out of them so they can let go of stuff.”

Gunn said hospital staff deal with heartache and tragedy each day.

“A lot of times the staff is parallel processing. This person is a certain age and I am that age or I have a child at home that has the same characteristics. So you really connect with what you do here,” he said.

They have also learned to adjust and deal with different faiths and ideas.

“Being a seminary student I can see God through my creeds and my confession. And my belief system and God have fit into this box that I have created for him,” Bassett said. “Doing this has stretched those boundaries where I have seen God show up in ways I would not have expected or a person’s faith looks different than mine but they are still a faithful person. I am able to step in and minister without the proper formula, but to be kind and compassionate when at one time I might have said that is not how you do it. Being here and doing it allows me to experience and minister in God’s name and to experience him personally in a much broader way.”

Schettler said he has been amazed at how the staff works together with one goal in mind - to do whatever it takes to heal the patient and make their stay as comfortable as possible.

“There is a lot of talk about heroes. A lot of heroes I work alongside that would not call themselves heroes,” he said. “It’s because they come in and go the extra mile and do the extra thing. When you get to be part of that it’s inspiring. Seeing what our staff does day in and day out is pretty amazing to witness. “