I spent August 2011 through August 2012 working as a chaplain resident at Wake Forest Baptist Health in Winston-Salem. During my residency I took care of the everyday pastoral care needs of my clinical units, and responded to crisis and bereavement calls. Among many other tasks and responsibilities of this educational program, I facilitated conversations about Advance Directives with patients and their loved ones. I also helped them complete the documents, down to calling the notary and finding witnesses — two for each document, and they could not be related to the patient or the hospital in an official capacity.
This may seem like a strange role for a hospital chaplain, and in some ways it was, as these documents could take a major portion of a chaplain’s day. In other ways, however, completing these documents was a profound opportunity for pastoral care and discussing some of people’s deepest and most profound needs and desires. Patients got to express who they are, what they value, and how that informs their desires around end of life care. In many cases, the patients were well enough that they could consider their options, knowing that the implementation of them was not imminent. However, other times, it was really too late to be discussing these options, as the crisis had already come. In these moments, I often wished people had not been afraid to have these conversations sooner, and that they had been educated sooner on the difference between a living will, a health care power of attorney, a last will and testament, and a financial power of attorney. I wished that they had been a part of a faith community open to facilitating these conversations and equipped to do so.
In May I was able to attend a conference entitled, “Conversations Today or Crisis Tomorrow: Planning Ahead for Life’s Final Journey.” It was a beautiful conference, aimed toward equipping individuals, clergy, and community leaders about how to have these often painful and scary conversations about end of life care. With a variety of presenters and a combination of practical and meaningful information, this conference was informative and incredibly important. This is a Chaplain Residents’ dream-come-true — an organization taking the initiative in bringing education about advance directives out into the community.
The even better news is that there are more opportunities coming up to attend this conference. Whether you are a faith leader, church member, or family member interested in hearing how to start such a difficult conversation, these conferences presented October 3 (Yadkinville) and October 4 (Winston-Salem) by Hospice & Palliative Care Center could be meaningful for you. The conferences will be from 8:30-3:00, and breakfast and lunch will be included on both days. For more information, please visit their website or call (336) 331-1310.
My experience as a hospital chaplain completing hundreds of these documents with patients and their families is part of why I am so grateful for these upcoming programs. Navigating such documents and elements of the healthcare system can be incredibly overwhelming. We can put our faith into action and help educate and equip congregants for the final stages of life. Could planning ahead for the end of life be yet another way your church addresses health and wholeness in your congregation? This great opportunity could be a start.
–Shannon Axtell Martin, PHW Regional Consultant
Partners in Health and Wholeness is an initiative of the North Carolina Council of Churches. PHW aims to connect health as a faith issue. Please visit our website to sign your personal pledge to be healthier, and to find out about grant opportunities for places of worship in NC.