The spiritual clinician

A look into the chaplain’s unique role as spiritual support staff within the hospital’s walls
Jan. 23, 2017
Chaplain Maria McLain Cox, pictured here, recently replaced longtime Poudre Valley Hospital Chaplain Mike Lundgren, who retired in July 2016. Photo by Kati Blocker, UCHealth.
Chaplain Maria McLain Cox, pictured here, recently replaced longtime Poudre Valley Hospital Chaplain Mike Lundgren, who retired in July 2016. Photo by Kati Blocker, UCHealth.

Although Maria McLain Cox is a hospital caregiver, she doesn’t set broken bones, take blood pressure or even use medical equipment. But her role is just as important in the healing process, and her reach expands far beyond the patient.

Cox is a hospital chaplain.

She is one of several chaplains at UCHealth, spiritual caregivers who help patients, families, doctors and clinical staff manage some of life’s crucial moments.

“Everyone has something greater than oneself — the people, beings and things that give the person meaning,” Cox said. “That may be their faith, God, family, animals, nature, music or something or someone else. Many people have numerous things greater than themselves.

“Part of my job is to support the patients and families in connecting with these, for often in these connections they find their coping strategies and resilience, and peace and joy,” she said.

Hospital chaplains have a unique career. Similar to religious leaders, they obtain a Master of Divinity (or seminary degree) and then train for an additional 1,600 hours in chaplaincy. They learn about trauma, bereavement, death and dying, other areas of human suffering and develop counseling skills. Chaplains are then eligible to apply for board certification, about a one-year process of additional education and appearance for an interview. Cox is board certified, and there is an additional board certification in Hospice and Palliative Care, which Cox recently completed.

It’s a differentiating factor that makes the job not for everyone, but one that makes their services for everyone.

“Chaplains help find underlying issues as part of the care team,” Cox said. “We are taking a spiritual pulse to find out where patients are experiencing pain and suffering.”

The patients and their families

Although hospitals have chapels, they are not where you’ll most likely find a chaplain working. Cox makes the rounds with leaders each day on the hospital’s most acute floors and informally rounds the other units throughout the week.

“I hope to assist people in finding meaning and resilience, their own ‘grab bars’ to hold onto as they negotiate their suffering,” she said.

Cox said patients reach out to her for religious reasons, such as to pray, receive a sacrament or get help finding a local religious group to join during extended stays. They oftentimes call on her for a Bible, and she gives them one to keep.

But people reach out for nonreligious reason as well, and it’s not always talking, she explained. Sometimes it’s singing, meditating or telling stories, but it’s always listening.

“Just like a doctor wouldn’t give the same medicine to every person, I customize based on a person’s needs and wants,” she said.

Doctors and nurses also request her spiritual support for their patients sometimes, such as when a patient has received bad news or needs to make a difficult decision about their health.

“You may think of [hospital] chaplains only being there when there is a death and for religious reasons, but we use them in all aspects of care,” said Vanessa Vasa, a registered nurse in PVH’s Birthing Center. “Sometimes it’s about having someone to talk to, and chaplains are a good support.”

Cox also attends every cardiac or pulmonary arrest within the hospital, as well as every death, but during those times her role shifts toward the people around the patient, especially the family.

“It’s the medical professional’s job to rush in and fix,” Cox said. “But we don’t fix; we are there to hold their suffering with them.”

The staff

And there is another unique aspect of Cox’s role at the hospital.

“I’m one of the only clinicians in the building whose job it is to also take care of staff,” she said.

Hospital chaplains are “sounding boards,” she continued, providing employees who deal with trauma, death and stressful situations someone to talk through their feelings with. She meets with staff struggling with compassion fatigue, trying to process a recent case or dealing with ethical quandaries.

“Maria is a huge asset,” said Megan Townsend, an RN in PVH’s Birthing Center. “We recently worked together after a loss, and she was incredible with the family. But just as important for us, she was responsive and respectful of my needs.”

UCHealth has full-time chaplains located at all of their larger hospitals, including PVH in Fort Collins, Medical Center of the Rockies in Loveland, University of Colorado Hospital in Aurora and both Memorial Hospital locations in Colorado Springs. Their services also can be requested by providers at UCHealth’s Grandview Hospital in Colorado Springs and the Broomfield Hospital.

About the author

Kati Blocker has always been driven to learn and explore the world around her. And every day, as a writer for UCHealth, Kati meets inspiring people, learns about life-saving technology, and gets to know the amazing people who are saving lives each day. Even better, she gets to share their stories with the world.

As a journalism major at the University of Wyoming, Kati wrote for her college newspaper. She also studied abroad in Swansea, Wales, while simultaneously writing for a Colorado metaphysical newspaper.

After college, Kati was a reporter for the Montrose Daily Press and the Telluride Watch, covering education and health care in rural Colorado, as well as city news and business.

When she's not writing, Kati is creating her own stories with her husband Joel and their two young children.