Police Officer Finds Blessings through Chaplain Services during Health Crisis
UC San Diego Health’s chaplain services and spiritual care provide patients comfort and support when faced with serious illnesses or difficult health decisions
Darren Hamilton, age 42, is a police officer for the City of Coronado. He has been involved in a variety of experiences, some uplifting and rewarding, some intense and extremely difficult.
But nothing in his 11 years in law enforcement has come close to the challenge he faced when, at age 26, he had unexpected complications from gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). The chronic digestive disease occurs when stomach acid flows into the esophagus and irritates the lining.
Hamilton’s case of GERD became so critical he needed surgery. He underwent the procedure at a local hospital.
“Unfortunately, it did not resolve my condition. In fact, it made it worse. My esophagus narrowed to the point where I would choke on water. I was starting to have gastrointestinal bleeding along the lining of my esophagus. I needed two blood transfusions,” said Hamilton.
It was at that point that the husband and father of three children transferred his care to UC San Diego Health.
Due to the extreme damage done from GERD, Hamilton needed a surgery performed that removed his stomach, spleen and appendix with a portion of his colon recruited to act as an esophagus.
“It’s fascinating what was done to resolve my health issues, as well as what the human body can endure and adapt to,” said Hamilton. “I know I received the highest quality of care and treatment at UC San Diego Health.”
In total, Hamilton had four major surgeries over a span of two years.
It was during a post-surgical appointment that he was asked if he would like to talk to a chaplain.
“I said sure, but I always thought a chaplain was for those who are dying,” said Hamilton. “I had no idea at the time how critical this service would be to me and my wife.”
“It was exactly what I needed to help get me through this journey. My medical team saved my life using advanced techniques, but there was an entirely different team who saved me in a different way.”
The chaplain services and spiritual care at UC San Diego Health provides an important source of comfort and strength to patients and families faced with serious illnesses or difficult decisions to make.
“Our staff includes chaplains and spiritual care leaders from many different faiths. Together, we provide compassionate and caring spiritual support. Different beliefs, cultures and values are respected,” said Allison Kestenbaum, certified educator and supervisor of spiritual care and clinical pastoral education at UC San Diego Health.
“We are available for patients at any point in the trajectory of an illness. We help patients and their loved ones with serious illness, some of whom are in the final stages of life, and some with limitations from health challenges, like renal disease or cancer.”
The services are free to patients and include:
- Crisis intervention
- Comfort and emotional support
- Spiritual consultations and guidance
- Support in decision making and ethical dilemmas
- Prayers, blessings, rituals and sacraments
- Making arrangements with patients’ clergy or spiritual leaders
- End-of-life support
“Patients receiving care in different specialties have different spiritual needs, so it’s really customized care,” said Layah Blacksberg, director of experience operations at UC San Diego Health.
For patients wanting this support, a chaplain works closely with the multi-disciplinary care team to address needs. The team assesses several elements, such as if the patient has shelter and food, if the patient will be going home or admitted to the hospital, as well as if the patient has a support system.
“We all deeply care about these things,” said Tamara Rubenzik, MD, nephrologist and palliative care specialist. “We want to support our patients and help them cope and get through what is most likely the hardest moments of their lives.”
For Hamilton, the services gave him emotional support.
“It was someone who I could talk to about my good days and my bad days. There were times I just needed to vent for 20 minutes. The chaplain sat next to me and listened and would help me refocus on all the things I had to look forward to,” said Hamilton. “It was very special.”
For many patients, the experience of illness and hospitalization brings up questions, raises distress and can cause grief.
“There are losses, whether end-of-life or facing chronic diseases, that patients must process. Our team works together to address all of this,” said Kestenbaum.
“Some are sad they may never be the person they were prior to illness and treatment. Some are mourning the idea of not being present for significant moments for their children in the future. We talk about ways to process those feelings, like writing letters to their children for all those milestone events.”
As the only academic medical center in the region, UC San Diego Health is one of hundreds of hospitals across the nation accredited as a training site for spiritual and chaplain services. The clinical pastoral education (CPE) training program is designed for spiritual care professionals, clergy/religious community leaders of all faiths and health care professionals. Placement for the interns includes inpatient, outpatient and emergency medicine patient care settings throughout the health system.
“Through encounters with people impacted by serious illness and feedback from peers, faculty and clinical mentors, students develop skills, as well as new awareness of themselves and patients and how to be of great support to the community,” said Blacksberg.
It’s the reality that every person will be faced with a health crisis at some point in their life, whether for themselves or a loved one, that drew Kestenbaum to her career.
“I think the work is very meaningful. I have always been drawn to spiritual communities. It gives me purpose in the world,” said Kestenbaum.
Hamilton used the chaplain services throughout his entire recovery process. He is now back to work and living his life fully with this family.
“Every time I met with the chaplain and spiritual care team, there was an immediate warm, loving feeling. I am so grateful,” said Hamilton.
“As bad as our journeys can seem sometimes, there are always blessings in front of us. I am now able to be an even better husband, father and police officer. I have a new outlook and perspective on life and for all those around me.”
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