Health care patients receive support, not only for physical health, but also for emotional and spiritual health at Carolinas HealthCare SystemBlue Ridge.

Chaplains have played an important role in Christian hospitals since their inception.

“Grace Hospital was started by Grace Episcopal Church and has always had a chaplain,” said Dennis Stamper, senior chaplain at Carolinas HealthCare System Blue Ridge. “Up until the late ‘90s, the chaplain was an Episcopal priest. The chaplain at Valdese Hospital was initially funded by the community beginning in the 1970s. (They) hired their first hospital funded chaplain in the late ‘80s.”

Stamper attended his chaplaincy training at seminary school. He later returned to earn a Master of Social Work degree. He directed residential programs for abused children and worked for 17 years developing and directing treatment programs for people with chronic pain. He started working at Valdese Hospital in 1992 to begin an Industrial Rehab and Chronic Pain Management program. He has been a chaplain at Carolinas HealthCare SystemBlue Ridge since 2002.

“Around the year 2000, I found myself at a point in my life and my faith when I began feeling that God was calling me to something different,” Stamper said. “I wasn’t sure what it was, but when in 2002 the chaplain position came open at Grace Hospital, I just knew that this was what I was being called to do.”

In the 1990s, Grace Hospital and Valdese Hospital became part of Carolinas HealthCare System. The majority of a chaplain’s work is in the hospital, but they also assist people throughout the Blue Ridge Health system.

When a patient is admitted to the hospital, they are asked if they would like to have a chaplain visit them, said Francisco Risso, chaplain at CHCSBR . The patient also is asked if they would like information on an advance directive form, which includes a health care power of attorney and living will. The list of patients to see is provided to the chaplains each morning.

“We help everyone, regardless of background or identity,” Risso said. “We have meaningful conversations with our patients and their families that help them get to a more peaceful place in their situation. The most memorable are times when families have faced the death of a loved one, and we have been there to accompany them through that process. One service that many people may not know about is the work we do helping people to prepare their advance directives form.”

Before Risso became chaplain at Blue Ridge Health in 2016, he attended Wake Forest University School of Divinity from 2011-14. While studying for his Master of Divinity degree, he completed his internship and residence training program in chaplaincy at Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem.

“I found out about (the) hospital chaplaincy as a form of ministry,” Risso said. “I really enjoyed that work and found that it was a good fit. After completing my studies, I was looking for work as a hospital chaplain and a position at Carolinas HealthCare System became open. I applied.”

The staff at Blue Ridge Health helps patients and families by attending to patients’ physical needs through medical, food and housekeeping services, as well as providing encouragement in a limited amount of time, Risso said.

“Our time is specifically dedicated to spending time with patients and offering that support, which we think leads to better health outcomes,” Risso said. “Studies show that people’s health and well - being greatly improved when they have a strong spiritual connection. We help people to build and maintain that connection when they’re in the hospital, which can be a very stressful time.”

Chaplains not only help patients’ well-being, but also serve the employees and staff.

“Working with so much hurt and suffering and death can take its toll,” Stamper said. “The chaplains are constantly attuned to caring for and supporting the well-being of our care team members as well.”

One employee explained how a chaplain helped her through a difficult time.

“Our chaplains have been wonderful, compassionate and caring,” said Anna Wilson, hospital spokesperson. “Anytime you have employees like that, you benefit. They keep us grounded. They remind us of God and his love in a place that sees great joy and great heartache. They help us and our patients and families deal with both.

“When my mother was in ICU, Francisco saw me in the waiting room and came in to talk. He acted like he could stay with me for hours if I needed him to, and we didn’t talk about God or prayers. He asked about my mother and my family, and I asked about his. It was very comforting and just the break I needed. I am not a very religious person, but you don’t have to be for a chaplain to bring comfort. They are the best in figuring out what you need, whether it’s prayer, a hand to hold or just listening.”

Physical healing can be slowed or compromised if emotional or spiritual health issues are not treated, Stamper said.

“Being a hospital chaplain takes a particular kind of person with a particular kind of call,” Stamper said. “It is not easy work. We see a great deal of pain and suffering and it is our job to move toward that pain. I have personally been at the death of over 1,000 people now. That will change you. But I believe that at the heart of being a Christian and frankly of just being a decent human being is the call to care for others and to try to be of some use in this world. I am now in my 18th year as a chaplain and I continue to feel fortunate and blessed to be able to serve in this way.”

Barbara Jolly-Deakle is a News Herald correspondent and a member of the Morganton Writers’ Group. She can be reached at BabbyWrites@CompasCable.net.

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