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Robo-Chaplain

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I recently came across this art installation by artist and engineer, Dan Chen. He calls it  “The Last Moment Robot” and created it to raise controversial questions of ethics and humanity. He says,

The process of dying is probably the most vulnerable moment of a human life, where one seeks the assurance of human connection. In this installation, human presence is replaced with a robot, questioning the quality of intimacy without humanity,

It’s a pretty eerie idea that this might ever replace human interaction. After watching it, I am confident in my own job security. I don’t think robots will replace chaplains in the room anytime soon!

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Tips for Surviving Summer CPE

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Many seminary students will be starting their first unit of CPE in a few short weeks. Summer CPE is the most intensive way to do a unit, as everything is crammed into 10 or 11 weeks. Additionally, it’s usually students’ first exposure to working in a hospital, and dealing with their issues in a group process setting. Here is my advice to get through the process, and perhaps even learn something from it.

  1. Dress for Comfort – Wear comfortable shoes. If you follow one piece of advice from this list, let it be this. You will be on your feet for a good chunk of the day, you need to treat your doggies well. As a young, somewhat style conscious female, I shudder at the idea of “sensible shoes”, but am glad that flats are in style. Also, layers are your friend. It’s hot outside, cold in the hospital rooms, and you’ll be on the “hot seat” in peer group and verbatim sessions. I tend to wear a lot of cardigans and blazers. Pockets are great too for keys, pagers, pens, business cards, etc.
  2. Clear your schedule – Shortly before beginning my Summer unit, I naively signed up to preach every other week in a local church. After receiving the syllabus on my first day, I immediately bailed out of my Sunday morning responsibilities. With on-call shifts and all the writing that needs to be done outside of the 9-5 schedule, preparing and delivering sermons would have been too stressful. Not to mention how exhausted I was at the end of each day
  3. Find an outlet – You’re probably going to need a way to clear your mind, or space out for a bit. A friend of mine discovered how much she enjoyed running during her summer unit. I did a lot of journaling and walks through the local park. Also, never underestimate the power of mindless television.
  4. Forget what you’ve heard – It’s easy to go into CPE with preconceived notions of what the experience will be like. Heck, half the Google searches that lead folks to this blog are for “CPE Horror Stories!”  I remember hearing that CPE was something you either loved or hated. While clearly I lean toward one side of that, the experience is more nuanced. You might enjoy it or you might not – but I doubt it will be in extremes, and more importantly, you will learn something.
  5. Flexibility is key – This learning model is probably different from the academic approach of most seminaries. It requires reflection, and lots of it. It might feel weird at first. I watch students struggle with acclimating to this style of education. Flexibility is also important for being a chaplain, as you never know what to expect  when you enter a patient’s room!
  6. Be Honest w/ yourself – And your peers and your supervisors. This is your process and you will only get out of it what you put into it. No one benefits from hiding what’s really going on in the midst of your experience. It’s natural in our society to be guarded about our feelings and vulnerable experiences. But when you acknowledge what you’re really going through, liberation and learning can follow.
  7. Embrace your mistakes – We learn by making mistakes. I expect my students to make lots of them. If every student provided perfect pastoral care from day one, I’d be out of a job!
  8. Identify some “lifelines” – Speaking of mindless tv, take a page out of “Who wants to be a Millionaire” and have some folks you can reach out to in high stakes situations. It can be helpful to have some friends/seminary colleagues you can turn to who are also doing CPE at another center. It’s good to connect with people who get what you’re going through and who know you outside of your peer group.
  9. Plan a vacation/staycation afterward – I finished my summer unit and then had to study for PC(USA) Ordination exams. I do not recommend this! I’m aware that finances are tough for most CPE Interns (you’ve just paid lots of money to work all Summer!) but see if you can get away or have something relaxing to look forward to at the end of it all.
  10. Wash your hands – Ok, maybe this is more important than good shoes. Of course hospital culture is concerned with this and I’ve seen lots of corny videos extolling the virtues of cleanliness. It’s certainly crucial to protect patients, but also for your protection. CPE is exhausting and will take a toll on your health. I expect my students to get sick or start dragging halfway through the summer. Washing your hands helps avoid falling ill. As does sleeping and vitamins – but my husband will attest that I’m not great with either of those…

Other CPE Survivors out there, leave your advice for the new students in the comments! 

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I Was There in the Room ~ A Rare Heart

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This is part of a regular series of posts about bearing witness to death in the ICU after the withdrawal of mechanical ventilation. For more background information, read this first. As always, names and identifying information have been changed.

If I had to define my job as chaplain with one verb, it would be listening. Chaplains are trained to listen well. We listen to emotions, complaints, stories, everything. It is by listening that we get to know the other person’s shared humanity. By listening, we come to recognize the soul.

I have the pleasure of hearing stories about patients told by their loved ones. By being an outsider in the room with them, I serve as a reason for them to share all sorts of stories about the one who is dying. They educate me about the individual’s personality; including their quirks and idiosyncrasies. They fill me in on the history of their lives and loves.  Sometimes the stories are funny and the room fills with laughter and joy. There is a temporary relief from the heaviness the family has been feeling. The pendulum of mood swings toward sadness as more tragic accounts and events are remembered. And the realization that the patient will no longer be here to tell his/her own stories anymore.

I listen to these stories that are presented. Nodding and smiling appropriately, occasionally I’ll ask a follow up question. And I take note as the wording changes. There is a switching back and forth between referring to the patient in the present and the past tenses. The family tries out the language of moving on. They sense their comfort one moment and then perhaps revert back the next. I hang in the balance with them as they seek to figure it out.


Lewis’ family shared lots of stories in his final moments. He was surrounded by his wife, his two sisters, one brother, his daughter, two nieces, one nephew and some family friends. I spent a couple hours listening to their stories; these are a few of them.

Lewis has style. He loves picking out his clothes and getting his hair done. He even goes to the nail salon. They know him there. I don’t get my nails done, but he gets his done once a week. And boy does he like accessorizing.  He has these outrageous alligator shoes. We were going to have a party for him next week on the anniversary of his transplant. He was so excited. He already had his outfit picked out. It’s been hanging right there, all put together in the closet. Maybe that’s what I’ll bury him in. I mean, not the shoes maybe. I’ll save those, they’re expensive and I think I’d like to give them to one of his sons. They don’t really need shoes do they? You never see anyone’s feet at the wake.

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He’s a good cook. He would fry up turkeys all the time in the back yard. That was his specialty. But above all, brother loves scallions. He puts them in everything. Most people use onions or other herbs, nope, he uses scallions. Scallions in burgers, rice, salads, he put them on the turkey too. He would get worried when he ran out, he would always say “I gotta get to the store and get some scallions.” The people at the store now will probably wonder why they have so many scallions when they used to sell so much. They’ll miss him!

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He loves to dance, especially to the oldies. He was at a wedding last week, while everything was still looking good. He was the king of the dance floor and he has these crazy moves, and he went like this (thrusts his hip back and forth quickly) and knocks this poor guy to the floor. (The victim turned out to be an aging local celebrity) And his bodyguards ran over, they thought he was trying to pick a fight, but Lewis didn’t even realize what had happened, he went on dancing and then the bodyguards realized he didn’t mean no harm. It was funny though. If I ever see (the celebrity) around town, I’m going to ask him about it. I bet he’ll remember my brother!

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He was a good dad. Always there for his daughter. And for everyone really. He has a good heart, you know. Just saw to it that everyone was taken care of. When his daughter was little, he found out that a kid in school with her didn’t have heat during the winter. The kid’s family couldn’t afford it. Wouldn’t you know that he talked to some shops and businesses and convinced them to sponsor this family, to pay their heating bills. And he didn’t make no fuss of it either. There aren’t too many men around anymore who have a heart like that. It’s a shame we’re losing one when they’re so rare.

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