What it’s like to be a chaplain for a kids’ hospital
Sure, a hospital couldn’t run without doctors and nurses. But there are countless underdogs helping families get through some of the most difficult times of their lives. One of them is chaplain Rev. Brian Wilson, M.Div. He sat down with us to talk about what it’s like to do his job.
Why did you become a chaplain, and why did you end up in Louisville?
I did not set out thinking about becoming a chaplain because my career path that I had previously held to was becoming a congregational leader and pastor of a church. And so it wasn’t really until my last semester at seminary that I took a course on pastoral care. I fell in love with the material, the approach, the concepts. I thought, “Man, I really missed my opportunity here to really do clinical pastoral education while in seminary.”
Very shortly after I graduated I enrolled [in chaplaincy training] and my first assignment was at a children’s hospital in Atlanta. I fell in love with it immediately. So I knew from that moment on that I wanted to do hospital chaplaincy because I found that it was the place where life experience and personal beliefs and deeply held values really came to critical moments.
Being able to help families hold to those foundational strengths and values in those times, and even to find some things new that were within in them — I found that to be incredibly meaningful, incredibly life-giving to see the change that happens within them.
It seems sometimes that it was almost visible that once someone’s internal strength really kicks in, they can also grab hold of that external strength that is needed. That’s what started my journey into pastoral care.
Do you specialize in a certain area?
I specialize in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). I say that because the training that we all go through is really designed in such a way that we are able to care for people no matter what age, what faith, culture, things of that sort. I love being with the little ones and their families.
I find that nurturing hope in [the NICU] is a very special thing because families are just meeting the babies for the first time and getting to know who they are. And all these hopes that they held onto before, whether it was three months or seven months, or however long they were waiting to meet them, I help them to hold those hopes that are forming. There’s a lot of unknown. A lot of things that can really cause anxiety and concern. So to help them to hold to what the medical team is giving them and also their hopes too, and holding those things together, it’s a lot.
What are your most memorable experiences in the hospital?
There are so many that really stand out. I am glad that I can tell families with integrity that your baby’s in a great place here. And that your baby is in great hands with a great team of people.
I remember there was a mother in the military who came here with the little one, and she was around 23 weeks gestation when she arrived to our NICU and stayed here for a long time. [The baby] had a tracheotomy and there were questions about her brain development and questions about whether or not she would be mobile. I saw her this past NICU reunion — no taller than my knee, walking about and in charge. She’s just walking through the crowd, her mom is following after her trying to keep up, and I’m like, I can’t even believe it! I stopped, I kneeled down to give her a hug. She hugged me and then went on about her business, trying to get on to the jumpers and bouncies.
It was amazing to see that because there were countless days where I sat with that mom, helping to hold her emotional well-bring and spiritual well-being when all she knew is that she wanted to bring her daughter home no matter what she had to face. And she was willing to face it all, and at the same time terribly scared. The day of discharge, we were celebrating and she had a lot of things that if she was being discharged with, but even from that day to the last time I saw her it was just night and day. It was just amazing.
At the reunion, did you and mom have a moment?
Yeah, we did! You know, it’s one of those things that I am part of the whole team experience. There was a lot of gratitude that she did express for my care, and being with her, and support provided to her both spiritually and emotionally, and then she was asking about the nurses and there were certain names she was asking for, asking how they were doing, and tell them hello. But she did say there were times where she just did not know what she would do and how she would get through, because she never expected to be in that place. She never expected to have to go through so much. But then to know that there was the support of pastoral care, there was the support of nurses who did more than just their nursing job but really cared about the patients and families — that is what made the difference in her coming into an unknown experience with so much to deal with.
How do you deal with the grieving families and the tougher days?
I find that this work has intrinsic value for me. Not only from the aspects that I’ve mentioned already, but from the perspective of how it helps me to be a better husband, a better father, a better friend.
Because I see where others have come from, I’ve seen the things that others have had to go through, and walking with them through the experiences has helped me learn not to take things for granted. It helps me to really appreciate the small things, to celebrate the small joys, to take pleasure in the moment that is in hand, because this is a place where we see that life can change in so many different ways.
There are a lot of moments that stick with me. I’m careful not to bring those home, although they stay with me. So, I see a kid climbing a tree and I’m wanting to say, “Get down from that tree!” and wanting to do a stunt on the bicycle and then saying, “No, no stunts for you.” But then having to allow them to live and explore.
How do you de-stress from a long day at the hospital?
One of the biggest things that I do is have a continual awareness that I am but a part of what God does, and I am but a part of what God is doing. That there is a greater body of God, a body of what God is doing in the world that is working in the lives of the people and families that I serve.
So that helps me to let go and to say, “Well, what about this family that is still in the hospital even though I’m going home to live my life, and they’re dealing with the worst part of their lives?” How I am able to go and do that is knowing that God is surrounding them with the care they need, God is surrounding people with the help they need.
The other thing is being with my family. It is being with them to help me to enjoy life. I love dancing with my kids, one of my daughters in particular — they’re all great dancers but she and I choreograph dances. My family also teases me because I tell them that everything’s a dance. If you don’t think you can dance, then just think about the things you do in your everyday life and it’s a dance. You do it in a certain rhythmic way and it’s a dance. So we dance, and that’s a big part of what helps me to be present with my family. It allows me to continue to take this work as serious as it needs to be taken, but not allow it to consume me.
How do you bring your faith into your home and your experiences from work into your home?
One of the ways that I bring what I do home without sharing information or even giving them a burden to hold, so to speak, is help them to see that faith is not something that we’re just talking about just to kind of keep this civil order in the home or in society, but it is the thing that helps to give a sense of meaning and strength to all that we face in life.
It’s being able to find renewal and redemption and a sense of meaning in the face of life’s challenges. I tell them that it’s easy to hold to the belief that all is well, but it’s in the challenging moments where belief becomes truly critical. And that it is important to nurture those things before challenge happens, before crisis comes.