Health & Medicine

Fewer people are religious. But they still want prayer if they are sick

Chaplain Susan Cosio, left, hugs patient Eleanore Castaneda, 67, of Modesto, after visiting with her in her hospital room at Anderson Lucchetti Women's & Children's Center on the Sutter Medical campus in Sacramento on Wednesday.
Chaplain Susan Cosio, left, hugs patient Eleanore Castaneda, 67, of Modesto, after visiting with her in her hospital room at Anderson Lucchetti Women's & Children's Center on the Sutter Medical campus in Sacramento on Wednesday.

Californians say they attend church less often, pray slightly less than a few years ago and fewer claim an absolute belief in God.

None of that seems to matter for area residents when they are hospitalized. The demand for spiritual and religious care within hospitals hasn’t waned with the years, according to Sacramento-area chaplains and national spiritual care officials.

All of the hospitals in the Sacramento area provide chaplain services, and Sutter Medical Center is building a new prayer room that is slated to open in June.

“The studies say we’re becoming more secular but it doesn’t mean we’re any less cognizant of that which is greater than us,” said Rev. Tom Harshman, vice president for mission integration of non-acute care at Dignity Health. “Our value in being able to connect with that – which provides hope and comfort – is heightened. A chaplain should be able to help (patients) identify that.”

Addressing a patient’s spiritual and religious needs can increase trust in the medical staff and even have a positive effect on health outcomes, according to research by the Mayo Clinic Department of Chaplaincy Services.

The pool of research on chaplain services is small, but a 2010 survey in Mayo Clinic Hospitals found that 78 percent of respondents cited wanting a chaplain to remind them of God’s presence. Among other reasons, 71 percent of people also said they wanted a chaplain to “offer support to family or friends” and 69 percent wanted a chaplain to “be with me at times of particular anxiety or uncertainty.”

“As hospitals go through financial constraints, there’s still an appreciation for spiritual care as a part of holistic care,” said David Lichter, executive director of the National Association of Catholic Chaplains. “There’s continual demand for those that are certified to do the work.”

And programs across the country are growing. A 2009 survey from the American Hospital Association found that 65 percent of nearly 5,000 hospitals surveyed provided spiritual care services, up from 53 percent in 2002.

Chaplains aren’t simply retired preachers and ministers. They go through rigorous training, graduate study and residencies before taking their place in hospitals. They have religious training but bring an interfaith approach to their work, according to Lisa Nordlander, executive director of spiritual care services at Sutter Medical Center.

Chaplains are there for patients, families and clinical staff during births, deaths, surgeries and emergency and intensive care situations. The demands run the gamut.

“There’s always been a full load,” said Greg Rold, a chaplain and spiritual services director at Mercy San Juan Hospital in Carmichael.“We respond to religious requests but then we’re also really integrated with the interdisciplinary team here, and so we . . . will visit as many of the intensive care patients as we can. We don’t force ourselves on anybody but we’ll check in and see we can do to help them cope through their illness or whatever is going on in the hospital while they’re here.”

Those support services range from blessings or prayers to listening and holding someone’s hand during difficult time, Rold said.

Susan Cosio, a chaplain at Sutter Medical Center in Sacramento, describes the conversations she has with patients and their loved ones as a “gift.”

“People ask, ‘How could you be a chaplain?’ imagining it’s so depressing, but look at the meaning. It’s a privilege,” Cosio said. “How did I get to be the person who gets to listen?”

On a recent day, Cosio visited Eleanore Castaneda, 67, who sat in her hospital room hooked up to an IV, head bare and legs wrapped in a faux fur blanket. Castaneda has undergone treatment for cancer at the hospital for a long time, Cosio said.

Castaneda’s mother had died a week before and during a visit earlier in the week, she had been in a great deal of physical pain and could only mumble replies to Cosio’s questions.

Castaneda smiled as Cosio sat down and asked her how she was doing. She said she wanted to go home so she could keep teaching her grandchildren Matthew, 7, and Bella, 4, how to bake and crack an egg with one hand. She told one story after another about her family and their antics before telling Cosio about how Matthew and Bella pray for her.

“They said we spoke to Jesus and told him not to take you right now,” Castaneda said smiling, tears welling in her eyes. “I listen to those words.”

Cosio listened and smiled. She put her hand on Castenada’s arm and comforted her as she cried.

Molly Sullivan: 916-321-1176, @SullivanMollyM

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