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Health: Making sure our faith practices are respected in health care environments — Maureen Pratt

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A recent experience at a Catholic hospital made me realize how we cannot just assume our faith practices will be understood within an increasingly secular health care environment.

The situation was fairly straightforward: I wanted to see how a patient on a special diet might receive holy Communion. I spoke with the hospital’s speech therapist. The therapist told me it would be best to puree the host!

The therapist was not new to the hospital but seemed to be new to at least one of the Catholic sacraments. I tried to explain that the host could not be pureed and why, but my efforts were not effective (or, perhaps, accepted).

So, I called the hospital’s pastoral care department and explained the situation. Fortunately, the Catholic chaplain understood the dilemma and set up a formal meeting with the therapists. The chaplain explained the sacrament, its requirements and discussed what might work in the specific instance that prompted the encounter.

Later, the chaplain told me that I had opened a conversation leading to a learning experience for all. Ultimately, everyone benefited.

Maureen Pratt
Maureen Pratt is a Los Angeles-based author. (CNS photo)

The experience I describe made me more aware of a present and growing reality in our faith-based health care institutions: Pastoral care, even in a Catholic hospital, is increasingly disconnected from the medical care of patients.

Not all of the hard-working professionals who treat patients in a Catholic setting will be aware of what the faith practices of the patients (and, for that matter, the staff) are and how to see that the spiritual needs of those suffering are met.

It is not reasonable to expect all staff in a hospital to be chaplains, of course. However, knowledge of the role of spiritual care is sometimes not among the priorities of scientifically trained personnel.

So, it is even more important for us to make our faith needs known and, if needed, avail ourselves of advocates who will navigate the sometimes deep divide between physical health care and spiritual care.

Beyond checking the box for religious affiliation, someone entering a health care facility (hospital, nursing home, rehab center) can and should ask for the number and name of the chaplain or pastoral care department serving the facility.

Often, the pastoral care staff receive basic information about those admitted to the facility, but the sooner a personal connection is forged, the better communication can unfold throughout the individual’s stay.

If a Catholic has a religious object (a rosary, a prayer book, a Bible), these should be pointed out to staff. We understand that our precious, blessed items should be treated with care, but perhaps not all around us have the same knowledge.

Alternatives to physical objects might be necessary, too. For example, certain situations might not allow for a metal rosary in a patient’s bed, but a softer, crocheted rosary, a virtual rosary on an app such as Laudate or a televised rosary might be a substitute.

No matter the conscious state of the patient, prayer at the bedside or on a wider scale is a foundation of pastoral care. I have known of medical teams that pray before a patient’s surgery or other procedure, but also of medical “professionals” who dismiss discussions of things spiritual because of their focus on “science.”

In these and other situations, it is up to us to speak up, to make our faith and spiritual needs known (or our loved ones’). And in so doing, we can be part of the conversation that lessens the chasm between medicine and faith and creates more of an appreciation of how they can work together for everyone’s benefit.

Maureen’s email is maureen@maureenpratt.com