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WSU’s veterinary chaplain is ‘on a mission’ to bring spiritual care to hospitals and clinics nationwide

By Nick Gibson, The Spokesman-Review
Published: April 22, 2024, 6:02am

Washington State University junior Olivia Bustillos walked onto the Pullman campus Saturday morning to mourn two of her family members: Peanut and Snowball.

Bustillos was joined by a dozen others at the “Celebration of Life & Remembrance for Our Animal Companions” event who, like her, had lost a loved one. A guitarist strummed out a few wistful notes while the attendees took their seats and veterinary chaplain Scott Campbell approached the lectern, greeting the crowd with, “Good morning, dear friends.”

“I say ‘dear friends’ not just as a formality, because today, we gather as a community,” Campbell said. “Not by location, but by a profound shared experience. Each of us has cherished the deep, personal beauty of the human-animal bond, rejoicing in the joy and companionship it brings. Yet with heavy hearts, we acknowledge that this bond in its physical form has been severed by the finality of death.”

It was the fourth such event Campbell’s put on at the university over the past few years. Campbell, who may be one of only a handful of veterinary chaplains nationwide, said he hopes to make chaplaincy a permanent part of the veterinary field.

Bustillos adopted her guinea pig Peanut right before her freshman year. It was just after the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, and Bustillos was nervous about the transition to college and uncertain what the “new normal” would look like.

Peanut provided motivation to embrace the next phase of her life, she said.

“It was kind of a way to keep myself in check,” Bustillos said. “I felt like I needed someone to take care of that wasn’t just myself. I needed a reason, you know?”

So Peanut and Bustillos left the greater Seattle area for the Palouse. After classes got underway, Bustillos adopted another guinea pig, Snowball. They were their own little family, she said.

“They were not necessarily the best of friends, but they still liked each other,” Bustillos said. “For male guinea pigs, it’s actually quite hard to have friends. They don’t particularly like each other; they prefer to have a herd of ladies.”

Peanut died in December at the age of 7. Three months later, 5-year-old Snowball died. It was a tumultuous period for Bustillos; her grandmother died just a month after Peanut.

“My family didn’t understand why I was like, doubly upset,” Bustillos said. “My family was like ‘Oh, they were just two guinea pigs.’ Yes, they were, and yes, it wasn’t quite as impactful as losing my grandmother, but I still should be allowed to grieve that.”

Bustillos said Saturday’s gathering, which included poetry readings, moments of reflection and a remembrance garland ceremony interspersed between Campbell’s remarks, was a cathartic experience. She wasn’t able to set aside time to grieve her losses while juggling classes, her work schedule and losing her grandmother until the event.

Even if she had the time to devote to grieving, it’s not like the world creates much space for people to mourn the loss of an animal companion, especially ones like Peanut and Snowball, she said.

“People don’t think rodents could love you that way,” Bustillos said. “Guinea pigs are prey animals. If you can get one of those to trust you, that’s so rewarding.”

‘This is where I needed to put my energies into play’

Campbell said he became a chaplain in 2020 for one sole purpose: to take away pain and suffering from others.

It was a career change inspired by wanting to do more toward that mission after spending years as a hypnotherapist, he said. When he would be in a trance with a client, there were times when he wouldn’t know what to say, but the right words would come out anyway.

“These words would just come to me,” Campbell said. “And at the end of the session, more often than not, the client would share with me that it was amazing. That was, you know, right to the heart of it, and what they needed. And that made me wonder where those words came from.”

Campbell was not always religious; he said his spirituality was something that found him later in life.

“My parents were both Methodists, but they were disillusioned with organized religion,” Campbell said. “And so I started having some experiences that sort of opened my eyes a bit in my 20s that maybe there was something else, and then I’ve had other experiences through my life that just sort of built on that. It finally came to a point where I felt that I needed to really look into that.”

While still in seminary school, Campbell noticed a lack of services offered for grieving pet owners and veterinary professionals. He said he wanted to help address that gap, and approached WSU’s veterinary college about an internship he designed himself as soon as he graduated.

“I found that the traditional chaplaincy roles of human medicine, hospice, military, police, none of them really spoke to me as a person,” Campbell said. “And then I heard the challenges of the veterinary community, and I realized that this is where I needed to put my energies into play.”

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Campbell joined the staff of the veterinary college in 2021. Since then, he’s found ways to introduce spiritual well-being into the health care provided at the Inland Northwest’s largest animal care facility.

There are three main pillars of the veterinary community Campbell aims to serve through his work: the clients the veterinary hospital serves, the animal patients themselves and the veterinary staff providing care.

Campbell said assisting pet owners through the grieving process is probably the most visible part of his work, whether it’s meeting clients , spending time in waiting rooms at the hospital or putting on events like the celebration of life on Saturday.

“I wanted to bring in some form of end-of-life recognition, because our society is notoriously poor at respecting loss of animal companions as being a true heartfelt, grieving loss,” Campbell said. “And actually, studies show that about 80% of households that have an animal companion consider them members of the family. The relationships are deep and true. It’s part of the human animal bond; it’s what makes them special in our lives.”

For the animals themselves, Campbell has introduced a “quiet corner” separate from the main waiting area, complete with a higher table on which to put carriers containing smaller animals and bandanas sprayed with calming pheromones.

“The whole idea is to create a more comforting environment for both our patients and our clients,” Campbell said. “Because very often, you see a small patient in and they might be quivering, or hiding, or just basically afraid, and this provides a space that’s a little more subdued. And of course, if the client sees that their companion is getting agitated, subconsciously they might get agitated. And the companion senses that their client is agitated, and they might get more agitated, and it just becomes a cycle.”

As for the health care team, Campbell has organized meetings to allow providers to explore the emotional and relationship aspects of their work while connecting with their fellow hospital workers. He said he’s constantly evaluating how he can best serve all three pillars: the animals, their owners and the health care providers.

“One of the values of having a three-pillar definition of veterinary chaplaincy is that you have touch points that you can go back to and say, ‘What more can be done here? What am I missing? Or how is there suffering that is not being addressed?’ “ Campbell said.

‘I’m on a mission’

Bustillos heard about the remembrance ceremony while Snowball was receiving care at the hospital, before she knew he wouldn’t make it.

Campbell approached her to talk about what brought her in that day, and Bustillos shared that she had recently lost Peanut. She said she’d heard about the ceremonies before while working shifts at the hospital as an undergraduate assistant, but she hadn’t had a reason to attend any of the prior events.

As an aspiring veterinarian, Bustillos said she sees how important the role of veterinary chaplaincy could be for the broader industry. She found Campbell to be helpful, and the ceremony to be an important part of her grieving process.

Marianne Youngstrom, a graduate student in her third year at the veterinary college, agreed. She said it was important to her to be a part of the ceremony, so she volunteered to read a couple of poems and oversee the remembrance garland portion of the event, which involved attendees tying ribbons with the names of their animal companions to a string to form a garland.

The garland will be displayed near the hospital’s entrance alongside garlands from the prior ceremonies, Campbell said.

“I think volunteering at these kind of events just helps me get really good training on how to help my clients process complex grief, especially in a really good, healthy way,” Youngstrom said. “They fill my cup up.”

Youngstrom and her husband have attended past ceremonies to grieve the loss of their two cats, and she said they both found it to be a healing experience.

Campbell cares deeply for the emotional and spiritual care of pet owners like Bustillos, and veterinary staff members like Youngstrom. He said he’d like to be the driving force behind ensuring similar care is available across the country one day. He’s founded the American Association of Veterinary Chaplains to assist him in his efforts.

Campbell presented what he’s learned on his journey into veterinary chaplaincy this week at the Spiritual Care Association’s annual Caring for the Human Spirit conference.

He said people were interested in hearing more about his work when he attended the conference last year and would mention it in passing. That gives him hope new members will be added to his association of veterinary chaplains in the coming months.

“I’m on a mission to make veterinary chaplaincy a chaplaincy profession, right alongside human medicine, hospitals, military,” Campbell said. “Because I think it is important, and quite frankly, I thought, ‘Oh, somebody must be doing this.’”