Meeting patients' spiritual, as well as physical needs

Advocate Good Samaritan Hospital team of chaplains supports all faiths

  • The Rev. James Christian, vice president of mission and spiritual care at Advocate Good Samaritan Hospital in Downers Grove, says his team helps patients and staff of all different faiths.

    The Rev. James Christian, vice president of mission and spiritual care at Advocate Good Samaritan Hospital in Downers Grove, says his team helps patients and staff of all different faiths. Photo courtesy of Johnna Kelly

By Thomas Mitchinson
Special to the Daily Herald
Posted1/9/2016 7:00 AM

The Rev. James Christian, vice president of mission and spiritual care at Advocate Good Samaritan Hospital in Downers Grove, advocates strongly for patients' spiritual needs.

"Being in the hospital can take its toll on one's dignity," he says. "The average patient is likely to interact with 70 unique individuals. This can feel overwhelming and disorienting. Even the hospital gowns can diminish one's dignity."


As we talked in his office, it was clear Christian cares deeply about the spiritual care of patients as individuals.

"Our team of chaplains provide the time and space to be present with any patient to help retain and build that sense of dignity and connectedness. We affirm the worth and spiritual freedom of each person and treat all people with respect, integrity and dignity," he said.

Christian feels that this freedom includes a respect of one's spirituality.

"While spirituality may mean a lot of things to different people, I find it to be a relationship to the divine -- a higher power -- something greater than myself which gives meaning and definition to my life," he said.

That mission is embodied in the philosophy of the hospital, which states in part, "We believe each person is created in the image of God."

This approach extends even to those patients who may not want to talk to a chaplain. Christian's team aims to ensure their religious needs are met -- providing a Quran, Bible, Talmud -- whatever is part of that person's practice.

"Being a faith-based health care organization means we strive to understand and support the faith or spiritual needs of all our patients, without imposing any one point of view. For patients with a faith vocabulary, we are multilingual -- talking in faith, values, or whatever meets the need of the patient," the Rev. Christian said.

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Some research has shown that love and spirituality affects us physically. David McClelland, Ph.D., of Harvard Medical School did "Mother Teresa effect" tests in which he showed a film of Mother Teresa ministering to the sick. When individuals saw that love expressed, they had specific physiological health benefits. The research indicates that how we view ourselves and respect each other is vital in the treatment of disease.

Likewise, Christian says that we are more than just a body. "In the midst of an illness, spirituality tells me that I am more than just my sore knee or a kidney problem". He said that spirituality "helps me know who I am and how I relate to God, myself, and others."

Helping patients find their dignity, and respecting their individuality and spirituality, is a growing topic of conversation in health care.

The U.K. group, "A Dignified Revolution," was founded in 2008 to advocate for elderly patients. They identify specific ways of treating patients that show respect: being polite, thoughtful and caring; keeping them informed; meeting their needs; and ensuring their privacy.

"Showing up, letting others know we care about them, compassion and empathy -- these are vital to the practice of the whole spiritual care team," Christian said.


Patients feel this caring attitude and appreciate it. As one patient said, "You are here and that reminds me that God is present."

This call for meeting the patient's spiritual needs also extends to the staff.

"We integrate that mission into the entire care team. We expect doctors, nurses, technicians, even housekeepers, to work in this way. Their specialty may be pharmacy, but the values embodied in our mission, which include an awareness that human beings are whole persons in light of their relationship to God, are expected of every team member," Christian said. He helps to ensure all new employees understand and practice this mission.

There are times when the staff might feel stressed or discouraged over a patient's condition. So the chaplains help them feel a connection to a greater power.

"Part of our ministry is to the physicians," said Christian. "To help doctors who have come through a very tough case and ask them how they are doing is very important in our combined mission. It invites that physician into a space that allows him or her to ask for help from a greater power and receive the resilience and empathy needed."

Christian and his staff of chaplains ground their work in the conviction that everyone deserves the dignity of care. This is a lesson for all of us, not just those in a medical setting.

• Thomas (Tim) Mitchinson is the media spokesman for Christian Science in Illinois. He is also a self-syndicated columnist writing on the relationship between thought, spirituality and health, and trends in that field. You can contact him at

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