During my first year in medical school, UCLA offers us the opportunity to shadow a chaplain working at a nearby hospital. I do hope that other medical schools encourage their students to participate in a similar experience. If your current, or eventual, medical school, does not offer chaplain rounds shadowing, please look into it. Your encounter may not be the same as mine, but it will be memorable.
We are randomly assigned to a chaplain when we sign up to shadow. A chaplain, in my eyes, is someone who provides comfort to patients. I was set to shadow a Catholic priest. My vision of my time in the hospital consisted of seeing sick patients at death’s door. I had low expectations for the visit because I do not personally have any sort of religious beliefs and I was not looking forward to seeing people dying for several hours. Needless to say, I was very wrong in my assumptions. Most patients we visited were not dying but were in the hospital for an “extended” stay. Religion was an important part of their life outside the hospital and they had few outlets of expressing their faith now that they were confined to a hospital bed.
We ventured off into the wards and saw a variety of patients. We saw patients who had neurosurgery, quadruple bypass, liver failure, kids and even babies. My medical side was excited to ask the patients questions about what we had been learning in class, but I refrained. The chaplain would read the Sacrament of the Sick and say a healing prayer to the patient. The prayer was either to benefit the patient or to make the family members, who were present, feel better. I bowed my head in respect every time the chaplain said a prayer and stood back while family members cried in his arms. Then, the most amazing religious experience of my short life was about to occur. I was about to witness the baptism of a newborn baby. I knew what a baptism was but I had never seen one in real life. I volunteered to video tape for the parents, which was very exciting. The child was baptized with holy water by the chaplain. This experience was almost the complete opposite of what I expected. This was a new life brought into the world and the chaplain was there to do his part, no one was dying or crying because this was a celebration.
Overall, this experience was really eye opening. I am now more open to the services of a chaplain in my future career. I was thinking of only calling on a chaplain if I needed to deliver news of a fatal diagnosis but that is no longer the case in my mind. The chaplain I shadowed was a great teacher and he was really open and honest with me. He did not make me feel uncomfortable and he made me feel welcome in every environment. I now feel it is an important part in a medical student’s education to accompany a Chaplain on his/her rounds.