Hospital volunteers anoint the sick with kindness

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By Fran Salone-Pelletier, Religion Columnist

 Novant Health Brunswick Medical Center mandates an annual educational review for employees and volunteers. Like all mandates, it is not always graciously accepted. However, the option to take the test as a group lessens the angst and even makes it fun.

I am always impressed with the extent and depth of the questions, despite the fact that they also carry a degree of advertising as a means of corporate public relations. This year was no exception.

One might think we were attending a church service. From the outset, the proffered message centered around a sense of compassion. Hospital workers, paid or volunteer, are expected to be kind, patient, empathetic, and respectful to all – companion workers, patients, and visitors alike. The call was to be open to growth. More specifically we were told to “strive to grow” by having a positive attitude, being flexible and honest, recognizing the power of diversity and understanding.

The call is wrapped in a vision of excellence. In fact, a mantra of expectations was repeated. Deliver a remarkable patient experience in every occasion, every time. Lest anyone fall prey to the magnitude of the challenge, simple steps were outlined. First, do no harm. Create a safe environment where there can be open communication.

Empower authentic, personal relationships that incorporate mind, body, and spirit. Listen to each other. Provide the necessary education and information to make confident, knowledgeable choices. Measure the outcome. Treasure the process. Offer each other the dignity and respect we’d like for ourselves. Recognize our human similarities, similarities that defy the differences of race, creed, ethnicity, culture, language, and personality. Keep asking, “What is the best I can say or do in this circumstance?” In short, ask not what others can do for me. Ask what I can do for others!

As the minutes ticked on, the standards were repeated. It was not that the test takers did not understand what was expected. The repetition simulated all recurrences. It was offered as opportunity to integrate information into transformation. Words like compassion and empathy were ‘unpacked’ to increase understanding. Avoid labeling. Focus on needs for comfort, concern or preferences. Listen, reflect and offer support and aid. Be present. Acknowledge people. Convey interest. Minimize distraction. Take personal ownership of another’s needs and follow up on them. Conclude with the question, “What else may I do for you?” In short, build a relationship.

Once again, all I could think about was church, the gathering of God’s people united under God and in God. What if “church people” lived into the burning reality of the question, “What else may I do for you?” What if we always treated people with respect and dignity? What if we avoided the jargon and acronyms of our individual denominations and faith traditions and found ways to help each other on the journey to God?

Hospital volunteers were instructed about the essential nature of teamwork. This teamwork evolves from an intentional understanding and experience of the four A’s: Anticipate, Acknowledge, Apologize, Amend. I’m sure many sermons have expounded on an identical theme.

Anticipate by identifying recurring situations. “We always did it this way” or “We never did it this way” can be positive identifiers for change and growth. Develop plans to respond to those statements and situations. First, use what worked.

Acknowledge problems, as well as successes. Listen well to what is said and what remains unsaid but equally real. Ask clarifying questions. Recognize and honor feelings. Listen for suggestions. Act upon them – first thanking the sharer for the information. Sincere offering of thanks will disarm agitation. It will also display acceptance and understanding of a different viewpoint or perspective.

Apologize. To tell hurting persons we are sorry for what they are going through and to ask how we can help right now is a healing action. It may, perhaps it cannot cure what ails them, but it offers the grace and peace of our caring presence.

And, finally – because it truly is the last, ultimate action we can take – make amends for any offense whether it was consciously done or not.

For me, those four A’s are the unpacking of the two great commandments we read and recite, often without stopping to let them seep into the marrow of our being. If we express our love for God and others by anticipating holiness in the development of responsive and responsible plans, we are church. If we acknowledge our problems, listen well to God’s voice everywhere and in everyone, ask clarifying questions, and recognize our feelings, we are church. If we are grateful for the divine life God shares with us through others, we are church. If we make amends for the messes we create by being self-absorbed, we are church.

Hospital workers, volunteers or paid, are church people whether they attend services or not. They are church people whether they know it or not. They are people who have chosen to anoint the sick with caring kindness and compassion. They offer a medicinal presence, an ointment of love.

I suggest that church people need, more intentionally, to be hospital workers. Church people need to pay full attention to each other and to all who cross their path. Church people need to sit down with others. They need to have eye contact, use pauses and minimize the distractions that keep us apart. Church people need to be silent listeners, spirit-filled “pray-ers.”

Church people must volunteer time, talent, treasure to the anointing of the sick. Pope Francis said it this way: “The thing the church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful...I see the church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else.”

Although medical personnel need to ask about a patient’s physical problems, volunteers who view their volunteerism as divinely appointed ministry need to be mindful of the seriousness of all illnesses, including their own. Hospitals are churches. Churches are hospitals. All of us are called to anoint the sick with the oil of kindness.


Fran Salone-Pelletier has a master’s degree in theology and is the author of Awakening to God: The Sunday Readings in Our Lives [a trilogy of Scriptural meditations], lead chaplain at Novant Health Brunswick Medical Center, religious educator, retreat leader, lecturer and grandmother of four. She can be reached at grammistfran@gmail.com.