The notes from the provider’s referral read, “Patient has a speech impediment.” I prepared myself mentally and dialed the number for Sarah.*
When I began talking with Sarah, I noticed right away that the impediment was rather severe; her voice was very shaky and would come and go. It took a bit of concentration on my part, but I found that, with some patience, we could communicate just fine.
So, Sarah began sharing her story with me. She stated that she was lonely and depressed and felt empty. She said that no one ever calls her, so she very much appreciated that I had.
Then she stopped and asked, “What is your name again?” I replied to her, and she became apologetic for having assumed, based on my voice, that I was a woman instead of a man. I told her that it was quite all right and that I'm used to it. Those I talk with over the phone often make that mistaken assumption. And I laughed, which invited her to laugh with me.
And then I made the statement that cemented our bond. I said, “No one gets to choose their voice.”
Almost immediately, Sarah lost any self-consciousness about hers. She said, “While I don't get to talk with people, I talk a lot with God.” I told her how wonderful that was and shared how I can’t sing, but I still sing to God because He doesn’t mind. In fact, He rather likes it. Then she asked me if I was familiar with a particular hymn. I was not, but she said it was one of her favorites. And then she sang it for me.
Without exaggeration, she must have thanked me six times for being willing to talk with her. I told her that it was my joy in life to do so.
A Voice That Cares
In health care, referrals are understood as transfers of care to medical specialists such as cardiologists or gynecologists. But referrals at AdventHealth are also made to spiritual caregivers, a testament to the organization’s commitment to whole-person care — body, mind, and spirit. In fact, since the inception of AdventHealth’s clinical mission integration program in 2018, nearly 35,000 spiritual care referrals have been logged.
The referral originates in the patient’s room, whether physical or virtual, with a spiritual wholeness screening based on fruit of the Spirit — love, joy, and peace — in Galatians 5 in the Bible. Patients are asked three questions that are integrated into their electronic health record:
A “no” answer to any one of the questions triggers a referral. In the inpatient setting, the referral goes to one of the hospital chaplains. In the outpatient setting, it goes to the patient’s provider, who can personally address the issue during the patient visit or send the referral to the E-Spiritual Care Center. The Care Center has a team based at the corporate headquarters specializing in conducting spiritual needs assessments, creating individualized spiritual care plans, providing spiritual counseling, and more.
“We’re all human. We all experience loss, failure, loneliness, anxiety about the future, broken relationships, disappointment,” Ted Hamilton, AdventHealth’s chief mission integration officer, says. “We don’t always know where to turn or have ready access to spiritual resources. This program provides that resource.”
Because of the program, spiritual caregivers like Keith Harding have had the opportunity to witness pivotal moments in patients’ lives, like making the decision to forgive or reconcile with someone who has offended them, reaffirming their faith, committing to finding a church home, or even praying for the first time.
“Providing spiritual care is a special ministry for me,” Harding says. “It’s broadened my scope and helped me deepen my listening skills. It’s helped me to better perceive the emotional and spiritual needs of all those to whom I minister.”
As the spiritual caregivers refer patients to the E-Spiritual Care Center for support, comfort, and encouragement, to maintain patient confidentiality and trust, they take special care to avoid including any protected health information when recording these mission moments.
Words of Comfort
The phone rang several times until a female voice came across the line. After I explained the reason for my call, she said, “Thank you so much for dialing! My mother has been waiting for your call.”
The woman who had picked up the phone was one of Margaret’s* daughters, who had taken on the role of primary caregiver for her mother. Margaret was going through medical treatments that were taking a toll on her physical strength. When her daughter passed the phone to her, I noticed that Margaret’s voice was muffled, and she took many pauses between words. She shared that she was extremely exhausted and struggling to speak.
I offered to call her back at a more convenient time, but to my surprise, she replied, “No, please stay. Just recite the words of God. Remind me of His promises.”
For the next 20 minutes, that’s precisely what I did.
I read the Bible slowly and listened to Margaret’s gentle voice whispering, worshipping, and praising God. At that moment, all she wanted was to be comforted.
I was thankful that I could bring her those words of comfort.
Another time, I introduced myself to JoAnn* and gave the reason for my call. Then she began to tell her story.
She said she felt very nervous about her pending surgery. She said it would not be her first procedure but that it would be her first one without her husband by her side. Due to COVID-19 restrictions at the hospital, he was not allowed to join her inside the facility.
As the minutes passed and I gave JoAnn the opportunity to express her feelings and concerns, I noticed her voice becoming calmer, and she began to tell me about her experience meeting her surgeon. JoAnn told me, “Don’t feel bad about what I am going to tell you, but when I saw the doctor, I was very concerned because she looked so young. I remember asking her if she had performed this surgery before. I also told her that I was worried that she was so young.”
JoAnn laughed and continued recounting the meeting. “For a moment, I even thought that the best option would be to cancel everything and look for another doctor with more years and experience, but her words remained engraved in my mind. She told me, ‘I understand your concern, and I respect it. But if you will allow me to tell you something, even though I do not have many years of experience, I assure you of this: my patients are my passion, and I will not be alone in that surgery room because it will not be my hands, but Jesus’.’ ”
After almost an hour of conversation with me, JoAnn concluded that, even though anxiety visits her at times, and even though her beloved husband would indeed not be with her during surgery, the words from her surgeon ring true: “Not my hands, but Jesus’.”
How wonderful it is that our providers and our E-Spiritual Care Center can support our patients together.
These stories represent how the spiritual wholeness screening is allowing AdventHealth caregivers to move beyond patient interactions to patient relationships, addressing deep spiritual needs that otherwise would go unnoticed and untreated.
“These are real voices of real people for whom a visit to one of our offices or hospitals provided an opportunity to be touched spiritually for the first time in a really long time,” Hamilton says. “What a responsibility, what a privilege that poses on us to bring healing to people.”
* An alias used for storytelling. Patients’ real names are never recorded in mission moments.