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Joseph Hepburn

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Joseph HepburnJoseph Hepburn, Chaplain, UCLA Medical Center, Santa Monica

Has worked at UCLA Medical Center, Santa Monica as a chaplain since 2011


He is a native of the Caribbean Nation of Trinidad and Tobago and a minister of the United Methodist Church.

What is the role of a hospital chaplain?
A hospital chaplain is the person who is involved in the spiritual well-being of the patient, the patient’s family and the staff. Chaplains in general provide ministry beyond the walls of the church — in places such as prisons, businesses and hospitals. Here at UCLA, we are interfaith chaplains. We relate to people of all faiths, or no faith at all, to provide spiritual help, guidance, nurturance and support to patients facing illness and suffering. We try to help patients realize that they have an inner resource and reserve of spirituality that they can draw on to go through the illness in a wholesome way.

As a minister with the United Methodist Church, how can you help people from different faiths?
We don’t talk about religion. In this work, we meet patients from all over the world. They speak different languages. They have different ways of expressing themselves, different cultures. Some patients want the Scriptures read to them. With others we do mindful meditation. Some just want to talk or not say anything at all but just be comforted by a pastoral presence.

How do you provide spiritual care to someone who is an atheist?
Usually I ask them what gives them a sense of wholeness or strength. They might say nature or fishing or astronomy gives them a sense of contact with a higher source of power, a higher being. The waters in the ocean renew themselves. The air cleanses itself. Nature renews itself. And the chaplain can help them in the process of regeneration, growth and healing.

What is the biggest challenge you face in your job?
My biggest challenge is to find ways in which I can help the patient through their illness while maintaining their dignity and self-worth as a human being. It’s a tragic thing to be ill because you have financial issues, family issues, health issues and social issues. It’s not just the illness alone. When you’re sick, you’re at your most vulnerable as a human being. But humor is a significant part of managing patients in their illness. Humor is not laughing or making jokes. That is a miniscule portion of it. Humor is looking at some of the disparities of life, the ironies, the exaggerations, the distortions, the “aha!” moments. Humor comes from looking back on your memories and finding wholeness and freshness of vision that makes you smile and makes you laugh at yourself or at life. Humor helps us confront life and its challenges. It gives people the psychic space to manage their grief, pain and discomfort. It gives them a sense of self worth.

Is there anything you can say to help someone feel better about having a terminal illness?
Our main focus is helping people go through the illness. We don’t give them any false hope. We try to feel their pain and their struggle and sit where they sit. Sometimes we don’t have to say anything. It’s just a presence, a ministry of presence, which is a very powerful thing. The chaplain comes in to sit with patients, allowing them to be comfortable with themselves, which is humanizing and reassuring.

What do you do for staff members who need spiritual support?
We take a tea cart to different units once a month to give staff members a chance to talk about what’s on their minds in a safe and confidential environment. We call it “Tea for the Soul,” and it’s something the staff looks forward to. We also meet with staff individually.

Do you have any hobbies or outside interests?
I enjoy astronomy programs, creative dance and watching movies. I recently wrote a book titled “Sightings!” that discusses how humor brings affirmation of life in the face of “dis-ease” and disease, bringing psychological and emotional “refreshment” and positive incentives to the sick.