Tag: Decorah United Church of Christ

Rev. Laura Arnold talks compassion fatigue and the spiritual value of colostomy bags

In Part Two of our Minty Fresh interview, Rev. Laura Arnold–former hospital chaplain, current pastor of the Decorah United Church of Christ and Director of Online Learning for the Center for Progressive Renewal–talks compassion fatigue and the spiritual value of blessing colostomy bags. Read Part One of the interview.

Minty Fresh Mysteries (MFM): Many of the chaplains I worked with had keen senses of humor. Do you think that being able to see find the lightness in dark situations is important for the job? Was there a time when finding the humor in a tough situation allowed you or a patient to get through something bad?

Laura Arnold (LA): Humor is absolutely essential for chaplaincy, be that playfulness with patients at times or the use of humor and joking with chaplain colleagues as a way of processing and coping with the situations we are faced with.

One afternoon, I was called to visit with a patient who had just been through a procedure to get a colostomy bag. She was depressed and not sure that God could love her anymore. It was hard to focus on her words as the pressure of her body produced an actively audible gargling bag of waste. “Let’s bless your colostomy bag!” I announced during our conversation. She burst into laughter—roaring about whether or not I’d have to use oil or water, whether I’d have to hold the bag, and whether I could stomach even being in the room much longer with the eruptive gurgling and the stench. I’ll admit it was the strangest idea I’d had in a while, but I’ll tell you it was one of the most remarkable and honest times of blessing and prayer I’ve had. We could be honest as well as playful about the absurdness of the experience, but name that, even in the midst of it, God was there with her.

Playfulness was constantly present with my chaplaincy colleagues. We kept a list of public service announcements that we would occasionally act out. My favorite tales and skits included these: don’t tick off your spouse if they are carrying a

This was not a good idea.
Public Service Announcement: This was not a good idea.

hatchet, but in the event you do, ask them to leave it in your head until you get to the ER; drinking on rooftops is generally a bad idea as is having sex on a bridge without good guard rails; masturbating on the gear shift of your car is generally a bad idea as it leads to an awkward need for Xanax after having your car towed to the trauma bay.

MFM: From TV, we’ve learned important facts about hospitals. For example, thanks to accurate, fact-based documentaries like General Hospital, Grey’s Anatomy, and ER, we know that hospitals are populated almost entirely with hot, young doctors and nurses who all sleep with each other. Did your own experience working closely with doctors and nurses differ in any way from those highly realistic portrayals?

LA: I generally find medical dramas to be a bit over the top and roll my eyes at how they portray reviving folks in cardiac arrest through the cleanest, gentlest looking CPR imaginable (y’all, seriously, it’s intense in person) or portray such mild suffering experience by so many folks in their last bit of life or make it seem like every case has a fully collaborative team of well-rested, properly nourished, Ivy league trained physicians. The reality is that most docs and nurses I’ve worked with are exhausted, emotionally drained, and generally overwhelmed by their patient load. Many experience stressed home lives because of their own compassion fatigue and disconnection with their families, simply because they don’t have one more ounce of energy to give when they get home. I’d love to see a show that grappled with the hard questions nurses and docs face: when ought treatment shift towards palliative care rather than charge on at full steam, what the moral implications of what patients receive kinds of treatment, and how do you help prepare someone to die well? And I’d like a network show to include chaplains. Seriously, how is it that the Colbert Report had a chaplain repeatedly on the show and not one hospital drama does?

Rev. Laura Arnold on chasing chickens and strapping on a crash helmet

Self-proclaimed church nerd Laura Arnold served as a hospital chaplain and as the Associate Minister for Theological Education for the Southeast UCC Conference in Atlanta, GA.  She currently serves as pastor of the Decorah United Church of Christ in Decorah, Iowa and as the Director of Online Learning for the Center for Progressive Renewal. She is active in her local community, seeking to demonstrate God’s love in the world. In Part One of the Minty Fresh Mysteries interview, Rev. Arnold shares some of the wit and wisdom that served her well during her time as a healthcare chaplain.

Minty Fresh Mysteries (MFM): Burnout seems to be serious occupational hazard for chaplains. Was that a factor at all in your decision to transition from healthcare chaplaincy to parish ministry?

collar and brickLaura Arnold (LA): Though I have always been drawn to the local parish (and get church nerd excited about all aspects of church life—even meetings), chaplaincy was a seemingly perfect balance between the adrenaline junkie in me and my love of pastoral presence and theological reflection.

But there was a turning point.  I wouldn’t call it burnout as much as warping of worldview after being a part of the aftermath of so many devastating injuries and violence. I began to presume that pregnancies were inherently dangerous and healthy infants were rare, that violence was a normal experience, that everyone I loved was going to wreck their car and suffer a brain injury, etc.  In truth the warping of my worldview happened over a long period of time, so it wasn’t until the morning I started to strap a bike helmet to my head before getting in the car that I started seriously considering what the work of chaplaincy was doing to my spirit.  I was becoming someone I didn’t want to be and knew it was time to transition to another form of ministry. That said, I wouldn’t trade my years in chaplaincy for anything.  It was a tremendous and overall amazing place to serve.

MFM: You’ve shared with me that you had some pretty, ahem, colorful encounters with patients and their families, like the time a patient’s family member put his hand on your rear end during a prayer circle. (I’m totally going to use that in a future Lindsay Harding book, by the way.) What’s another example of a time when a patient’s family or friends were really undermining your ability to provide spiritual care?

LA: A family asked for an anointing and blessing upon a dying family member.  We scheduled a time for the next day when the family could all be present.  I wrote a beautiful liturgy and was honored to preside given that I had formed a long standing pastoral relationship with the patient as he was dying.  When I got to the room, oil and liturgy in hand, a brother announced that they had decided to check out the phonebook and call in a “real pastor.”  Ignoring their brother’s wishes, the family decided that I as a woman did not have proper authority to provide spiritual care.

As difficult as family and friends of patients sometimes were, staff members also managed to doubt the validity of our role. It was 3:04 a.m. when I was called by a charge nurse for an “urgent consultation.”  I rubbed the sleep out of my eyes and fixed my hair before heading up to the floor.  The nurse only pointed to the patient’s room and announced that he was incredibly upset and “needed some Jesus.”  What the patient actually said he needed was to have the chickens chased out of his room because their clucking was keeping him awake. Given that his experience of his hallucination was real, I proceeded to run around the room, arms swinging wide open, “gathering the chickens,” then loudly announcing that I was taking them all to the elevator to send them downstairs and outside.  The report was that he was asleep within 15 minutes of the chickens’ being driven out.  While I’m thankful that he finally slept, I wonder what in the world prompted the nurse to call me.  I continue to wonder if it was misconception of what chaplains do or if it was a manipulative use of power.

Read Part Two of the interview with Rev. Laura