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Caring for the caregivers, as well as patients, is job No. 1 for UK hospital’s eight chaplains

UK Chandler Hospital now has eight chaplains to serve staff and patients. (Photo from UKNow)


By Jodi Whitaker and Jenny Wells
Special to KyForward

If you ask Joe Alverson, director of enterprise pastoral services, to describe the job of hospital chaplain, the answer comes metaphorically.

“I really consider the hospital to be our place of ministry,” Alverson said. “The staff is our congregation. And the patients are our visitors. They come and check us out for a while.”

Joe Alverson

The critical component of this ministry, Alverson said, is the medical center staff.

“The staff is here every day,” Alverson continued. “If we don’t care for the staff, who will? You have to care for the caregiver, and that’s our job. It is not an easy task to come here every day and care for people like they do.”

Two and a half years ago, when Alverson was named director, he saw a need for additional chaplains to help better serve the hospital. At the time, the UK Chandler Hospital had two chaplains.

“I worked diligently talking to administration, sharing with them my vision for the department,” he said. “We needed more people here to care for our patients, their families, and our employees.”


Today, Alverson is seeing that vision come to fruition. UK Chandler Hospital now has eight chaplains who cover the hospital 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

The addition of chaplains has helped not only fulfill the need to help more patients, health professionals and staff but to help change the perception of chaplains.

“We were firemen,” Alverson said. “We would go to the place where we were called, put out the fire, make sure it’s OK, and then we would leave. It isn’t that way anymore. We are able to head off those fires a little more. We are able to spend more time with people and establish relationships with patients, and we are able to develop relationships with the staff so they are more comfortable calling us or giving us a heads up about situations in their unit.

“For the staff, it provides a great sense of comfort,” Alverson added. “It provides them with the ability to know that they are able to take care of the patient medically, and that if there is something that needs taken care of spiritually, we are here to take care of that.”

Robert Summers, one of two chaplains at UK Good Samaritan Hospital, agreed. “It allows us to be present with more people – to see more patients and to be with more staff,” he said. “It’s more work, but that’s what (Alverson) told each of us when we came on – that he was hiring us to work hard and to make a real impact here. We are able to do so much more now that we have more staff.”

Jef Ritzler, an emergency department nurse and shift supervisor at UK Chandler Hospital, echoed the impact of having a chaplain available at all times.

“Being in the emergency department, we never know when the next crisis will hit,” said Ritzler. “It is invaluable to have the chaplains here 24/7 to provide support to our patients, families and staff. They are a comforting presence in the midst of what at times can be a chaotic environment.”

Another benefit of having more chaplains and therefore more time with patients, families and staff, Alverson said, is that the perception most people have of chaplains is shifting.

“We know that we are not usually seen as the good news people,” Alverson said. “Sometimes it scares people. But with additional staff, we are able to make rounds and be more visible. We can just stop in to see patients just to let them know we are here.

Alverson said the other perception they would like to make is that caring for patients isn’t always about religion.

“Whether we talk about a spiritual matter or not, we are still providing pastoral care for that patient,” Alverson said. “If we talk about Mr. Brown’s cows because Mr. Brown’s cows are important to him, I’m providing pastoral care to him because he’s concerned and I’m listening to that. If Mr. Brown wants to talk about eternity, we will talk about that too. Or his faith. That’s still pastoral care. We are caring about him.”

“Our job is to care for that patient in the moment,” Alverson added. “That’s our job. We are not here to impart our beliefs on the people we encounter. We aren’t here to convert you. We aren’t here to tell you what you believe is wrong. Our job is to care for you here right now. That is what we are here to do.”

“We are here to serve,” Summers added. “We are here to serve patients and staff. Being able to have more people here in the hospital, to have a bigger footprint has given us the ability to define our role more clearly.”

The UK HealthCare chaplains are: Joe Alverson, Phylis Borchert, Jay Fulton, Jeremy Garbat-Welch, Chris Jennings, Mairi Renwick, Christine Ross and Stephen Summers.

Jodi Whitaker and Jenny Wells are writers for UKNow.

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