As a teenager, Michelle Todd wasn’t one for small talk.
At age 49, as the lead chaplain at PeaceHealth Southwest Medical Center. she has helped carry the emotional weight from innumerable hospital patients who need an ear during a difficult time.
“I’m geared for short, intense interactions. I may never see that person again, and I may never have a chance to have an interaction with that person again,” she said. “This is the one time I’m guaranteed. This person needs support. This is it. Let’s make the most and dig as deep as they want to go.”
During the pandemic, Todd’s job has been especially challenging – since it’s not only patients who need support but also caregivers and nurses who are at risk of burnout.
“Everyone was stressed out and working long hours. The stress of being assigned to a COVID unit when … guidelines kept changing,” she said. “It was a lot. We got tired, too.”
Many hospitals employ chaplains, who offer religious and spiritual guidance. At PeaceHealth, all chaplains are certified by the Association of Professional Chaplains and must be trained at a master’s degree level.
But Todd, who identifies as a Christian and was ordained through a Presbyterian church, emphasizes that her job isn’t only about religious needs.
“It’s about meeting people where they’re at. Everyone has something in their lives that gives them meaning, gives them hope to put one foot in front of the other each day,” Todd said. “I’ll highlight those things and talk about how to put more of that in their life if they haven’t had enough or find alternate things they’ll be able to hold on to.”
The Columbian was interested to learn more.
What is a hospital chaplain? What exactly is it that you do?
When I come to someone, a lot of times a nurse or doctor or someone here on staff will say, “Hey can you check on a patient in 215? They just got really bad news, or they’re having a bad day.” I’ll knock on the door and say, “Hi. I’m Michelle, and I’m one of the chaplains.” Some people have the wrong idea. They either think they’re dying or there to give them bad news. I’m here as a professional health care chaplain, which means I’ll meet you right where you’re at. I’m not here to teach or preach, but I’m here to walk alongside of you and support you in any struggles you may be having, and also at the very least be a listening ear to talk about whatever’s on your mind. It doesn’t have to be religious stuff.
So someone doesn’t have to be religious to benefit from a chaplain?
No. It’s about – when I say meeting people where they’re at, sometimes I’ll ask patients – what motivates you to get out of bed each morning? To get up to do your physical therapy? To keep going to work every day? They’ll talk about those things. For a lot of people, it’s family. For people with grandkids, a lot of times it’s grandchildren. Other times people will say, “God gives me hope and keeps me going.” I’ll highlight those things and talk about, “How to put more of that in your life if you haven’t had enough?” Or find some alternate things they’ll be able to hold on to. Atheists or agnostics, we’ve had great visits together about what’s important to them, what they hope to accomplish. It’s good to think about those things. It’s meaning-making and remembering.
How did the job change during the pandemic?
We had to get creative. We’re so accustomed to visiting people face to face and suddenly visitors weren’t allowed in. Suddenly we had patients who we were trying to figure out, “How much contact can we have face to face? What kind of protection did we need to be wearing? How do we orchestrate visits between patients and families?” The hardest one – an elderly couple who both were sick and dying with coronavirus. She was hospitalized on one end of the hospital and her spouse was at the other end. That was a difficult one. Not only were they not connected with each other, but also their family couldn’t come in. We spent a lot of time with iPads: Many more phone calls and video visits. Then there also was a lot more recognition from leaders and administrators about the importance of us checking in on the caregivers. That’s something that chaplains have always done – but at that time they asked us more intentionally to please give caregiver support.
What attracted you to this job?
Even as a teenager, I remember not being one for small talk. I enjoyed when people told me their real problems and I could really listen. That’s where I really enjoyed interacting with people – in those deeper spots. I’ll ask for God’s blessing on them and go our separate ways. This line of work is much better suited to me – for the short, deep, intense work. It’s an honor and privilege. I walk out of this 23 years later and say oh my goodness – I can’t believe someone trusted me enough to share that with me. What an honor that is.
You’ve seen and heard a lot of pain. Have you ever questioned your own faith?
You know there are a lot of times in the hospital when, I wouldn’t say it made me question my faith, but I sit there and go “God, I really don’t understand this. Why do the most amazing kind people, why does this happen to them, meanwhile you see people out in the world who are doing evil things?” Like outright stealing, cheating, lying – and they have the greatest lives ever. Those are the times I’m like, gosh. I don’t get it. That’s when I tell people, I don’t know why this is happening. I don’t know. We sit there dumbfounded together, and in an odd way it’s a little comforting. But yeah, I don’t doubt God being there – I think it makes me think, gosh there are things about the world I don’t understand and I probably never will.
What are your hopes going forward?
I hope a couple things – I hope that all of us can realize how the pandemic has affected us and that we can have the courage to reconnect for the first time with people who can love us back into a state of wholeness and wellbeing. I’m hoping that isolation doesn’t continue for people. It’s been a really isolating time and lonely for many people. That’s my biggest hope – that we’ll all have the courage to reach out again and risk deeper connection. It can be scary and rightly so – a lot of people have died even at this hospital. I have heard stories, that the pandemic is all hype and a scam but for those of us in the hospital walls, we know this isn’t fake.