Listening post

david howie

Rev David Howie is a UCA chaplain at the Royal Children’s Hospital (RCH). We asked him what he has learned in the three years he’s been there.

How many chaplains work at the RCH?

There are Christian, Muslims and Buddhist chaplains in our team. We also have a visiting Hindu and Orthodox chaplains.

How did you come to be a RCH chaplain?

In 1984 I did a student placement at the hospital with Rev Dr Allen Edwards. This was a very challenging, but rewarding year. I always had an idea of coming back. Toward the end of 2015 the position became vacant and was advertised in Crosslight. I almost didn’t apply thinking I hadn’t maintained my pastoral qualifications. My wife convinced me to apply anyway and see what happened.

Was this something you felt called to?

Yes. I’ve always had a keen interest in the physical, emotional and spiritual wellbeing of children. Being a chaplain at the RCH enables me to exercise this ministry with children, their parents and families. Especially given the opportune way that it happened, I have felt called and privileged to be at the hospital.

What are your main responsibilities?

The major part of the role is the spiritual and pastoral care of the hospital community. This includes patients and families, over 3500 staff and volunteers.

My particular focus is caring for children and families during their short or long stays in hospital. For example, a child with bronchiolitis (a common chest infection) might stay a few nights, whilst some cancer treatments take more than 12 months with regular hospital admissions. Often children will have many admissions so a relationship is built with them and their families. Indeed, some who have regular admissions call themselves “Frequent Flyers”. There are also times when a chaplain is on-call to minister to a critically ill child when parents request a baptism or blessing, or pastoral care at an extremely difficult time. We also offer debrief sessions for staff after a critical incident as well as supporting them with teaching and encouragement of self-care.

Occasionally I conduct funeral services for patients or staff members, as well as an Annual Memorial Service to remember and celebrate the lives of children who have died.

What are the sensitivities of working in a secular environment?

Chaplains provide person-centred care to those we encounter, which means they set the agenda. I thoroughly enjoy working in the secular environment of the children’s hospital, but it brings a range of responses. For some the words ‘chaplain’ or ‘pastoral care’ bring confusion, so people still ask ‘why are you here?’ For others, the terms bring suspicion; when I can almost see the person thinking: ‘What does he want? Is he going to try and force religion on me?’ And for some these terms bring significant fear, thinking that the chaplain has been sent to deliver bad news.

Once, I was visiting a family where, unknown to me, the child was in surgery. I’d just finished introducing myself as a chaplain when the hospital rang the mother’s mobile to say the operation was finished. At that very moment the father, a former soldier, jumped to the wrong conclusion and stood up. I looked up at a huge man with significant fear, and no small amount of anger in his eyes. When the mother received the news that all was well and their child was asking for them I was able to reassure the relieved father that I had no knowledge of the surgery and it was just a wonderful coincidence that I walked in the room at that moment. Usually people relax after a brief conversation and I assure them my role is about care and support.

As pastoral and spiritual practitioners we do not proselytise, however if a person brings up religion or faith issues, we are fully able to engage. Regularly I am the only representative of organised religion that a family knows. Often I have found those listed as ‘no religion’ have a deeper faith than those who name a denomination.

What have you learned about children?

Children are amazing. They are open, accepting and fully able to embrace life – regardless of what might be happening to them. Children have the capacity to live in the moment, they are naturally very trusting and often bounce back quickly. Children know how they feel and will tell you. They will tell the truth, without prevarication or shade. I’m convinced it is no accident that Jesus placed a child in the middle of the community as the model of entering the Kingdom of Heaven.

What do you find most challenging?

The emotional nature of working within a children’s hospital can be very challenging. There is something about the innocent suffering of children which brings another level to people’s response.  Being with children in pain and discomfort through illness or injury, and the impact this has on them and their families, who are experiencing upheaval and trauma. Situations where children have been abused or neglected are even more challenging.

What are the greatest satisfactions?

One of the great satisfactions is being with families when they receive good news; “the cancer has disappeared … the operation was a success … the injury is healing better than expected … the child seems to have turned the corner…”

When journeying with people through both the highs and lows of their child’s illness there are significant relationships that develop. Occasionally one gets the sense that we have actually made a difference in the care and support that we offer. Similarly being part of a multi-disciplinary team, including doctors, nurses and allied health is very satisfying. By offering a compassionate, listening presence and encouragement we support staff that give of themselves in caring for children and families. To see the way the team works well together which enables children’s healing brings great satisfaction.

What makes a good chaplain and how would someone get involved?

An effective chaplain is someone who brings non-judgmental listening to an encounter. They are listen carefully without needing to ‘fix’ things. A good chaplain is someone who is able to stay with a person in their pain and grief without too many words. Participating in Clinical Pastoral Education units, which provide focused practise and learning, is the most direct way to develop these skills and explore becoming a chaplain.

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