To spiritual care chaplains, healing goes beyond the physical

Staff chaplains from UCLA Health Spiritual Care Department reflect on their work as spiritual and emotional guides for patients.
Rabbi Dena Trugman
Rabbi Dena Trugman, a palliative care chaplain at UCLA Santa Monica Medical Center. (Photo by Denise Rick | UCLA Health)

From breaking an arm to navigating a cancer diagnosis, experiencing any health change can be a scary and uncertain experience. 

Supporting the care providers at UCLA Health is a team of staff dedicated to accompanying patients as they overcome their physical ailments. For many people, religion and faith is a source of comfort. For all patients, navigating the changes an illness brings to their life may present spiritual and existential challenges. 

The Spiritual Care Department provides support to all patients, regardless of their faith or spirituality. “We’re there to meet any concrete religious needs, such as providing Bibles and rosaries, but more so to guide the processing of someone’s experience of their illness,” says Rabbi Dena Trugman, a palliative care chaplain at UCLA Santa Monica Medical Center.

Spiritual care services are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to every patient. They include anything from prayer to texts and holy writings for spiritual needs, to connections with local faith communities, to having a chaplain included in their health care team. Chaplains round regularly on assigned units to offer emotional support. 

While chaplains come from their own faith backgrounds, their roles in the hospital are distinct from those of community spiritual leaders. Reverend Chunho Choi, staff chaplain at UCLA Santa Monica Medical Center explains, “If I go to a church, typically there's a teacher or pastor who's going to teach you what you're supposed to do and what you're supposed to believe. In the hospital, it’s actually the opposite, where patients are telling us their story and their beliefs and what's going to help them.”

Reverend Chunho Choi
Reverend Chunho Choi, staff chaplain at UCLA Santa Monica Medical Center. (Photo by Denise Rick | UCLA Health)

Chaplains are trained in Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE), a program designed to educate students in providing interfaith and non-denominational spiritual care in a hospital setting. Students complete over 1600 hours of training, both in educational and hands-on clinical settings, all to develop key skills: the art of listening and communication. 

The training is in how we listen, how we stay present with a patient, read between the lines and ask questions, explains Reverend Keith Wakefield, manager of CPE programs at UCLA Health. 

“It’s kind of like forming a spiritual diagnosis,” Rabbi Trugman continues, “It's like, what's the spiritual symptom?” For example, a patient expressing frustration with their nurse may be misdirecting their grief about their diagnosis. 

The physiological benefits to sharing and processing emotional experiences are proven. Being able to create a safe space, listen, ask questions and assess a patient’s needs is the art we’re always practicing, Rev. Choi added.

Treating the whole person

For many patients, their health is just one small part of their stories. Understanding their ailments in context with their lives helps to provide more personalized and holistic care, according to Rev. Wakefield.

“I remember visiting a patient who the team was really struggling with,” Rev. Wakefield says. 

Reverend Keith Wakefield
Rev. Keith Wakefield, manager of Clinical Pastoral Education programs at UCLA Health. (Photo by Denise Rick | UCLA Health)

The patient needed to have surgery, and though her prognosis wasn’t terrible, her mood was down and she was absent.

“I was visiting with students, and one of them asked her, ‘What do you do for fun?’, and it opened up this whole conversation about her life with her husband, how they had been married for over 40 years, and traveled around the country together.”

Two days before her surgery, her husband told her he wanted a divorce.

Understanding the root cause behind the patient’s mood allowed for the care team to offer her support in a more empathetic way. “Whole person care is actually seeing a patient as a person. You never know what they’re bringing with them besides their physical ailments,” Rev. Wakefield says. 

“We know that holistic approaches to care are the best way to help people heal. We know that when people feel seen and heard, their nervous system is able to relax,” says Rabbi Trugman. 

Rev. Wakefield says it’s also about seeing the patient as an individual in order to make connections.

“There’s something that happens in telling one’s story that makes meaning and is done in unity.”

Maanasi Kademani is the author of this article.

Take the Next Step

Learn more about the spiritual care services offered at UCLA Health.