The Prison-break Chaplain

by David Morrison

I was on my way to visit a patient on a Medical Nursing Unit when an elderly gentleman rushed up to me urgently.

“You’ve got to help me!” he exclaimed, “They have taken me prisoner and I can’t get away.”

I noted the panic and desperation in his voice, as well as the worry and helplessness that registered on the faces of the younger couple who stood a few paces behind him.

I didn’t speak right away but reached out my hand and he quickly grasped it with both of his. I shook his hand gently but firmly and said, “Hello, my name is David.” “What is your name?”

“John.” He replied, “You’ve got to get me out of here.”

“You really want to get out of here!” I said, mirroring his words. After a moment I continued, “Maybe I can help. … Who are these people with you?”

John didn’t answer, so hesitantly (reluctantly?) the younger man stepped forward.

“My name is Rob. John is my uncle.”

“Hello Rob,” I said extending my hand and making room for the younger man to stand with me and John. “I am here Uncle John and look, here is Mary,” he said, drawing the woman I took to be his wife to stand next to his uncle. She said, “We are here Uncle John.”

“John, I am glad that you have people like Rob and Mary who love you and are with you.” Mary gently put her arm around the old man’s waist and he looked at her a bit surprised. After a moment I continued, “John you are in the Hospital… It is a safe and caring place … You might need to be a bit patient but the doctors and nurses are here to help you.”

Although my words were carefully chosen, I did not rely upon them alone to convey the reassurance and comfort that I wanted John to feel. I also wished my body language, closeness, facial expression, tone of voice, volume and pace of speech, and physical touch to carry the same message.

In sharing this brief exchange, I would like you to notice that although John’s cognitive understanding of his situation is confused, his emotional response is crystal clear. Notice as well how feelings and emotions are given priority attention in my response and how as a result, I am reluctant to rely on words and explanations alone. Finally notice that I assume that the caregivers are needing as much support as the patient and that they are an indispensable part of the story.

What difference would it make to give priority to the emotional over the intellectual when engaging with an individual with dementia? What difference would it make to give a higher priority to the emotional in communicating with a friend or a stranger? How do you respond to the statement, “Emotional self awareness is an important step in becoming more sensitive to the emotional state of others.”? How might emotional sensitivity lead to deeper conversations?

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About the author

David Morrison is a pastor who has served in churches in Edmonton, Cranbrook and Vancouver until 2006. After completing a residency in Clinical Pastoral Education, David took on the role of Spiritual Care Provider on the Intensive Palliative Care Unit. He was certified as a Spiritual Care Specialist and Provisional Teaching Supervisor with the Canadian Association for Spiritual Care. Since his retirement in 2016 David has done chaplaincy work at the Alberta Children's Hospital and in two federal prisons. He is an avid sports fan, constant reader and novice oil painter. David is married to Linda and they have two grown children but no grandchildren. They live in White Rock, BC and are part of the Church at Southpoint.
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