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St. Luke’s chaplains are quiet healers of the health system

By Alexis Bennett, News and Community
May 31, 2019

St. Luke’s chaplains are called to the bedside of patients in every corner of the hospital.

From peaceful endings to unexpected losses and diagnoses, these spiritual advisers stand by patients, families and St. Luke’s providers in their most trying moments, helping them find hope and meaning, giving them fortitude and providing peace.  

“People have a better hospital experience, and heal quicker, when their spiritual and emotional needs are addressed along with their medical care,” St. Luke’s Spiritual Care Manager Norm Shrumm said.

“Clinical staff are also more resilient when they can access chaplain support for their patients, and also for themselves.”

St. Luke’s has had nationally board-certified chaplains and volunteers on staff since the 1970s.

30 staff, resident, intern and contract chaplains respond to referrals and requests across the Treasure and Magic Valleys with offices based in Boise and Twin Falls. 10 volunteer chaplains serve in St. Luke’s more remote service areas, and of those, many are a part of St. Luke’s McCall’s team. In Elmore county and Wood River, local clergymen are called upon to fulfill spiritual needs.

Chaplains respond to every call and referral, working as members of an interdisciplinary care team to ensure that patients have support during treatment and end-of-life.

Shrumm explains that the chaplains’ work isn’t solely religious. When requested, chaplains help arrange for support by local faith communities and clergy of all faiths. Staff and volunteer chaplains themselves represent diverse faiths including Protestant, Roman Catholic, Unitarian Universalist, LDS, Jewish, Adventist and even Buddhist. All have completed professional endorsement within their faith group and have master’s level preparation.

“’Spiritual care’ may or may not be ‘religious,’” he said.

Chaplains serve in inpatient and outpatient capacities, hospice and at specialty clinics, such as cancer centers—even in the community.

Every October, St. Luke’s chaplains also host and organize an annual Institute for Pastoral Care conference, inviting spiritual leaders across the state to attend.

And in the last couple years, St. Luke’s Spiritual Care department has increased its outreach as trainers and consultants. They provide spiritual care training to help church leaders and clergy become more adept at supporting their members and teach individuals how to have difficult conversations, such as discussions of end-of-life wishes, with grace.

Here are some of St. Luke’s chaplains.

Elizabeth Ryder

Ryder is a member of the St. Luke’s Treasure Valley hospice team and has been with St. Luke’s since August of 2011.

She says that the most fulfilling part of her job is hearing people’s stories.

“So many people have led interesting and adventuresome lives,” she said. “I love hearing about twists and turns in people’s journeys—hard times they went through, but also when they fell in love or followed their dreams or had an unexpected event turn into a great blessing in their life.”

She also appreciates the diverse group that she works with, from all faiths and denominations. And she finds the care she offers through grief support groups highly meaningful.

“For eight weeks, I get to teach people about grief while also letting them share their stories and reflect on how their life has changed without their loved one,” she said.

“These groups are incredibly healing for most of the participants. I really value taking part in the facilitation of those groups and helping people heal from a painful loss.”

Michael Werth

Werth has served in the spiritual care department of the Magic Valley Medical Center since November of 2018.The most meaningful part of his job is connecting patients with spiritual resources. Chaplains often sit with patients in a nurse’s place, offering comfort or an ear when they need to talk.

He enjoys offering people a new lens to view their journeys, allowing them to hear things in their own stories that they didn’t think to focus on. He remembers a time he gave a World War II veteran space to reminisce, share and cry.

“He related taking soldiers, or ‘boys, ‘cause that’s what we were’ over for the D-day landing and then transporting the wounded back to (the United States) afterward,” Werth said. “He apologized for crying and said he had never done that in front of someone else before.”

Les Albjerg

Albjerg has been with St. Luke’s for more than nine years and has recently taken the role as the first chaplain at St. Luke’s Nampa campus – a responsibility he’s waited years for.

He shares that he enjoys helping people “tap into their spiritual strength to help them cope with their illness or condition.” By reminding patients that they’re people and not diagnoses, he helps them rediscover the things that bring them hope, such as their relationships or positive outlook on life.

Often patients travel long distances to visit the hospital, and if they have an extended stay, their families have difficulty visiting. For chaplains, rapport is important.

“Recently we had a patient who was from Oregon, and due to several factors, the family couldn’t visit very often,” he said. “What brought comfort to the family was a commitment that I made to them to visit the patient daily and pray with her. Not only did they want daily updates from the medical perspective, I would call her husband and give a daily emotional and spiritual update.

He received a thank-you card from the family a couple months later expressing their gratitude.

“Through a long stay here in Nampa, and then a transfer to a rehabilitation facility, I became a part of the support system that brought healing,” he said.

After 28 years as a chaplain and leader, Albjerg still enjoys the connections he makes. He supports patients and St. Luke’s providers, reminding them that “it’s OK to not feel OK when things don’t go as expected or hoped for.”

About The Author

Alexis Bennett is a consultant for St. Luke's Community Health and Engagement.