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The Role of Spiritual Care in the Care of the Whole Person

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Featured Speaker

Rev. Dr. Judith Blanchard, BCC

The mission of the Department of Spiritual Care at Maine Medical is to provide quality religious, pastoral and spiritual care and counseling for patients, families, friends, staff and visiting professionals of the Maine Medical Center.

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Melanie Cole (Host):  When you consider care of the whole person in healthcare, the role of spiritual care is more important than you might even imagine. My guest today is the Rev. Dr. Judith Blanchard. She is the chaplain clinical leader at Maine Medical Center. Welcome to the show, Dr. Blanchard. Tell us a little bit about why addressing spirituality in the healthcare setting is so important. 

Rev. Dr. Judith Blanchard (Guest):  Thank you, Melanie. I think when we think about coming to the hospital, we think about something going wrong with the body, if there’s an illness, a disease, an accident. But we are whole people, and so we come with family systems. We come with social systems. We come with our psychology. We come with our culture. And we also come with a spirit. The spirit is traumatized by being in a strange environment, much in the same way that the body is traumatized by it. Our resources for responding to healing and curing illness come as much from the spirit, I believe, as they do from the body. It’s not that it’s either/or, but it’s both/and. It’s looking at us as human beings who are complex beings that have many different aspects to them, and the spirit can be just as important for healing as any other aspect for it as having your family be present, having your cultural needs attended to, having a multidisciplinary team look at what’s going on. They are not just one discipline. 

Melanie:  When people are going through some kind of an illness and they’re at the hospital, whether they’re inpatient or outpatient, how does the spiritual care help them along this journey and help them deal with some of the stressors and the emotional tumult that comes with dealing with the disease? 

Rev. Dr. Blanchard:  Well, first of all, it means that they have someone who can listen to them. Often a doctor or a nurse might be on a very tight schedule and they may feel that they don’t have enough time to ask their questions. They may not have enough time to talk about how this is impacting them, talk about how frightened they may be by a new diagnosis or by an old diagnosis that has recurred, that’s been going on for some time. They’re looking for someone to listen to them. They may have very specific religious components to that, such as prayer, such as ritual, such as being in contact with their own clergy person or people from their congregation. They may need someone to pray with them. They may need resources from that tradition, such as a Bible or other written materials that may be important to them. But on an existential level, they need someone who can begin to say, “How does this impact me and my whole life? Does my life have meaning if all of a sudden I’ve lost my legs or if all of a sudden I have to have a mastectomy or something that changes my body?” That impacts people at a deep spiritual level as well as the physical level. When we talk about healing or even gaining a new perspective on oneself, one has to have an opportunity to discuss those things, to have someone respectful listening to those discussions and maybe bringing very specific resources or more general resources such as presence or compassion or a listening ear or an advocacy when one does not understand maybe what’s going on. 

Melanie:  Dr. Blanchard, when people hear spiritual care and religion is involved, they most likely think of one religion or another. Can you explain that this involves spiritual? It does not necessarily mean one religion or another and that it is care for the whole body. How do you work with somebody if they are not of the same religion as you? 

Rev. Dr. Blanchard:  Well, there’s a lot of training that goes into that. In order to become a board-certified chaplain, one has to have training in their own religious tradition but also in many other religious traditions as well. It has to do with a particular cultural and spiritual humility. We’re coming not with an agenda but to be with a patient and the patient’s family wherever they’re at. We’re not coming with any kind of judgment. We’re not there to take attendance. We’re not trying to find out were they at church last Sunday or have they been a good Christian, Muslim, Jew, whatever the tradition is. We’re really looking at them as human beings who are in a very difficult situation and how can we help them address the anxiety, the depression, the fears that come along with that sort of thing. That doesn’t mean that we don’t have training in those other fields, and it also means that we have connections with those specific religious traditions in the community. We have wonderful relationships with our local synagogues and congregations of various faith traditions. Maine is a pretty secular part of the country, just as much as the State of Washington is. Probably only about 35 percent of our patients have a very specific tradition that they are very, very active in. But every human being has a spirit, and their spirit is affected by what goes on with their body, what’s going on in the context of medical care, and that’s what we’re there to listen to, to champion, to help them sort through and to find their own resources of faith. Often, it might be something like a recovery group. It might be AA or OA or NA that is most important to them. As you know, Northern New Englanders love the outdoors and hunting and fishing and all of that. They experience God in the woods or on the water and places like that. It’s finding out what are those places of strong affirmation and care that they have in their own lives that they can turn to at a time when they’re pretty isolated. They may have come from the county. They may have come from down east. They may have come from hundreds of miles away to be attended to in our hospital, which is a huge regional medical center, and they may not be able to have the people and those resources around them, and it’s easy to forget them and feel abandoned. 

Melanie:  What do you do with them and how do you approach them? Do sometimes people say, “Oh, well, that’s not for me,” or, “that’s not gonna help me”? How do you approach them and get started, and what can people expect from spiritual care and dealing with that whole person? 

Rev. Dr. Blanchard:  Well, you’re absolutely right that some patients hear the word “chaplain” and they say, “Oh, no. That’s not for me.” Or sometimes, they’ll say, “Oh, I didn’t know I was that bad.” They have the model maybe of the military chaplain who comes when they’re bringing bad news to families about a death or a change in diagnosis. We try to come in as a non-anxious presence, as someone who is there to support their spiritual and emotional lives while they’re in the hospital. Sometimes it’s just getting in the door in an open-ended question, like, “How are things going for you today?” We’re not coming in with any agenda of taking attendance or we’re not a census taker—where do you live, where do you go to church, who’s your minister—that kind of things. It’s in our approach of saying we are part of the team. We know it’s not easy being in a hospital. We’re here to talk with you about that and to see how we can support you in that process. It doesn’t mean everyone is going to be open to it, and we’re also not going to stick like glue to that person. Sometimes we’re just listening at team meetings about a change in diagnosis. Someone may come in having tests and think, “Oh, I’m gonna be out in 48 hours. I don’t need any support.” Then all of a sudden, four or five days later, they discover, “Oh, there was a diagnosis, and now there is major treatment that has to be brought to bear.” So we might come back then and simply say, “How are things going today? I’ve been visiting with your doctor, and I know things have been tough for you. Would you like to talk about that?” 

Melanie:  In just the last couple of minutes, Dr. Blanchard—and it’s such a wonderful topic and I think it’s so important—please wrap it up for us and give us your best information for listeners on why the role of spirituality is so important with coping and recovery from any illness. 

Rev. Dr. Blanchard:  Well, I think we’re a pretty materialistic society, and so we like to have the facts. We like to have definitive treatment. And the fact is that medicine is an art. We talk about practicing medicine. Doctors are practicing an art, and they’re trying to meet the individual patient where they’re at. That person is a complex web of connectedness in relationships, in deep meaning making in their lives. And so, part of that meaning making often has to do with the spiritual side of life. That is impacted by diagnoses, by trauma, by all those things that happen in the hospital. In addition to all of the other fine practitioners who are here, the doctors, the nurses, the technicians, they also have a chaplain available to them—not required, but eager to help support them in the process of recovery, of healing, of wholeness. Maybe not cure, but in many cases, whether it is or not. We’re there for you at the times of death and dying. We’re there for you with new babies, new hips, new knees, all of the celebratory times of our lives as well. We’re certainly eager to celebrate with patients, too. 

Melanie:  Thank you so much. It’s really great information. You’re listening to MMC Radio. For more information, you can go to That’s, This is Melanie Cole. Thanks so much for listening and have a great day./AT/rj/es