When we are patients in the hospital, we know that doctors and nurses will be poking and prodding and taking our vitals with every intention of employing their professional training to restore our health. But what can someone who is not a healthcare provider do to help us feel better at these critical moments in our lives?
Meet Linda Golding. Linda serves as Staff Chaplain at New York – Presbyterian Hospital / Columbia University Irving Medical Center and Coordinator of Pastoral Care for Milstein Hospital. Linda does not carry a stethoscope and has no prescription pad or scalpel. She is a healer of another sort. Her tools are her heart, mind, eyes, words and, most important of all, her ears. Below are some highlights from a recent conversation I had with Linda about her work and what she knows about healing.
What does a chaplain do? Linda smiles, “My work is about helping people remember who they are when they’re not sick. To help family members remember who they are when their lives are not upside down. When people get sick, the rest of who they are falls away – think of a microscope that zooms in to see one thing very clearly but cannot see anything outside the field of focus. My work is to see the full humanity in everyone. For me, the work of a chaplain is joyful even in the worst of circumstances because of the resilience of human spirit that I get to witness every day.”
The ‘what’ is beautiful. So how do you do it? “People want to be seen and heard. People want to tell their stories. It is said that chaplains talk with patients, but really, what is most important is that I listen. I bear witness.” As Linda speaks, I am reminded of the essential role listening plays in the world of therapy and mental health. She goes on to say, “I often begin with big, open questions like, ‘Can you share with me who you are?’ or ‘Can you tell me where you find hope, meaning, and connection?’ Studies show that we humans lose muscle tone after only two days in a hospital bed. We also lose “personal” tone under these circumstances. We lose our individual identities when we are stripped of our particular clothes, our jewelry, our routines. When patients tell their stories, their full selves comes back to life.”
What don’t you do? “Hospitals are filled with many people who are fixers. Health professionals fix broken bones and failing hearts, graft skin onto limbs that have been burned, and restore hearing and vision. The list goes on. The one thing a chaplain can’t do is fix anything. Being with patients, hearing their stories, and conveying to them that I see them as whole people who are alive in this moment is all I can do. I have come to understand that this is where the healing of my chaplaincy lies. Some people assume that this would make my work so sad, but just the opposite. My work is filled with joy and celebration thanks to people’s strength and resilience.”
But some people are not religious. What does that mean when you knock on their door? “Many people start by saying they are not religious, they are not Jewish, so I can go away. I don’t force myself on anyone, but I simply share with patients that I am not there for ‘religious’ reasons but rather to support them in figuring out how to have the greatest experience of being human today. For me that is the definition of spirituality. That is at the core of my work. That is where health lies. I aim to genuinely and authentically connect with patients. If I bring my whole self to the encounter, most people meet me in that space.”
How has your work changed due to the COVID-19 pandemic? “To say it has been a trying time would be an understatement. In the beginning, we did not have enough PPE for chaplains so we did not go in to see patients but had to provide tele-chaplaincy. This has been a time when healthcare providers have shown great strength and courage and have also needed more support and space to talk, so we have expanded our services to staff. I have also served as a bridge between patients and families and have tried to support so many loved ones through these complicated experiences of loss and grieving. I have done simple things like asking family members to share five things about their loved one so that healthcare providers could know something about their COVID-19 patients who are too sick to speak for themselves. I have also had the occasion of being entrusted with the sacred work of helping family members say goodbye under these extraordinary circumstances. I have spent hours practicing the Jewish tradition of reading psalms for those who have died.”
Chaplain Linda Golding may say that she is not a fixer, but every time I have the occasion to talk with her my mood is lifted, my anxiety is calmed, and my spirit takes flight. Her work as a chaplain makes it abundantly clear that although we may go into the hospital for one reason, our mental health and spiritual wellbeing are central to our stories of healing. Thank you, Linda, for listening, bearing witness, being authentically and fully present, and fixing by not fixing.