What to do When the Chaplain Visits

Or, Advice to Chaplains for Visiting the Ill

Laughter on the Cancer Ward?

Our laughter and snorting could be heard in the hall—I’m sure of it. Even with the door closed. Transplant Day loomed on the horizon. Pedro’s remission and recovery marveled the doctors daily. We sat on chairs in front of the narrow table, just feet from his tether-like IV pole gazing at the computer screen.

Marisa Tomei and Joe Pesci argued on screen while Pedro and I laughed over their relationship and our shared memories of years ago when My Cousin Vinny first came out. We had forgotten the humor, the pathos and the great acting—not to mention the raunchy sex scenes—things that didn’t bother us in our twenties but made us cringe in our thirties.

I hit the pause button like a guilty teenager and looked inquiringly up when our door opened and two women I’d never seen before slid into the room. Their white collars and somber attire proclaimed their occupation. Doubly guilty!

Unexpected Visitors

“I’m Reverend Rosa*, the chaplain,” the elder intoned. “This is my intern, Jennifer.”

Pedro, the dirty dog, answered not. “Nice to meet you,” I lied. “I’m Anita and this is- -“

“Pedro. We know.” Reverend Rosa glanced down at a thick clipboard in her hands. “He has cancer.” Sympathy oozed around her voice.

“Had.” Pedro corrected. “Stem-cell transplant tomorrow.”

“We see.” They seemed determined to be depressed for us.

Silence hung in the room like a too-big bubble ready to burst. In all of the days and weeks and months we’d been at UCSF, this was the first visit from a chaplain.

Our pastor from back home, Ron Halvorson, Jr., had flown down during one of Pedro’s worst episodes and anointed him. Pastor Ron’s wife Buffy regularly prayed with me over the phone. We weren’t shepherdless.

“Tell us, what do you do, Pedro, to keep your spirits up in difficult situations like this?”

“Watch funny movies,” Pedro quipped; our guests remained silent.

“They say laughter is the best medicine,” I babbled, wanting to fill the maw his answer had opened in the conversation.


Check Your Attitude at the Door

Their seriousness startled me. What was with these women? I glanced at Pedro and my eyes quickly skittered away. He was on the verge of uncontrollable, hilarious, unstoppable laughter. We were on the same page. Note to self—do not look at Pedro until these ladies leave.

I let the silence stretch. Pedro wanted them to leave, but neither of us was willing to help them out of the room—or the situation.

“Have you found solace for your sorrows?” Reverend Rosa’s eyes seemed to probe the room, searching for illicit items of solace. Dirty magazines? Vodka? Drugs? What was she looking for?

“Psalms.” Pedro’s pithy reply opened up another conversational crevasse. I decided to leave it at that. During Pedro’s darkest hour, Sarah found and chose Psalms 18:1-6 as something that resonated as a promise for her Papá. She had carefully copied it out and sent it to us. Pedro promptly taped the promise to his IV pole. The medical staff had put been on notice that the unseen physician was on our team.

“Pedro’s doing quite well, now, and his progress is a miracle.” I couldn’t keep my mouth closed and compulsively tossed them a gambit. Maybe we could talk about all the wonderful ways God had been with us.

“Praise God.” Jennifer intoned, reverently glancing upward.

How to Leave a Patient Feeling Refreshed (not)5 tips for #chaplains to read BEFORE they visit a sick person. http://wp.me/p2UZoK-ib

That’s it? My eyes danced past Pedro’s again, and I gave a small shrug. They weren’t exactly Pastor Bildad; I had to hope they were well-meaning. But the movie called, and the conversation had sat on the tracks long enough.

“It was nice meeting you guys.” I stood and glanced at my watch. The situation called for preventative prevarication. “This is Pedro’s normal nap time.”

Pedro took my cue and made moves to stand. I took a good look at him, and tried to see him through chaplains’ eyes. White male, 35-years-old, 6 foot 2, 140 pounds (up from 135), no hair, face partially paralyzed, eyes bulging out under concave brows, port with four lines sprouting from neck—ok, so his looks belied his condition.

“May we pray?” Reverend Rosa queried.

“Absolutely.” I assented, compassion tingeing my voice. Pedro nodded. We all bowed our heads and the chaplain said a prayer.

I walked to the door behind them, struggling to hold in my mirth, feeling holy and unholy at the same time. Before I shut the door, I waited until they had turned the corner, on to their next mission of mercy.

Looking at Pedro, the laughter burst forth. Deep, delirious, healing: holy.

Our advice to clergy who visit the seriously ill?

1.  Develop a relationship–or at least get to know who you’re visiting before you enter the room.  Anyone on Eleven Long could have told the chaplain that Pedro was in good spirits and on the mend.

2.  Don’t have your own timeline.  If it looks like the patient is busy, make sure to ask, “Is now a good time for a short visit?”

3.  Don’t have your own agenda.  Listen for clues from the patient and the family as to what they’d like to talk about.

4.  Reach out regularly.  The chaplain at Bozeman Deaconess Hospital left kind and encouraging notes if she happened to stop by when Pedro was out of the room.

5. Remember that Jesus came alongside people in pain–think about what this would look like in each situation.


Anita currently teaches English to 7th-12th graders. She describes herself as a 'recovering cancer caregiver' who gives thanks daily that her husband has been cancer-free for ten years.

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