MILLCREEK — Laurie Hokanson sent event staff in search of Kleenex while she took off her glasses and collected herself. The tears had come during a brief prayer, and they continued to fill her eyes as she introduced herself to the next faith leader in line.
"I've always been tender-hearted," said Hokanson, who works in the vascular imaging department at St. Mark's Hospital.
The trait serves her well in interactions with patients, but it also deepens the emotional toll of seeing sick people every day, some of whom will not get better.
At St. Mark's annual Blessing of the Hands on Monday, Hokanson and others reflected on challenges like these as they met with hospital chaplains and community religious leaders. The multifaith event encourages caretakers to check-in on their own spiritual health.
"It makes you feel the importance of what you do," said Tracie Ottaway, a sterile processing technician.
The blessing, a tradition held at hospitals and schools around the world, also reminds participants of the role religion plays in their work, supporting the hospital's mission of addressing spiritual needs alongside physical and mental ones, said Saundra Shanti, lead staff chaplain at St. Mark's.
Health care "isn't just about biology and chemistry," she said.
Spirituality and health care
Religious beliefs have influenced the field of medicine for centuries, affecting how patients make end-of-life decisions and what treatments are available to impoverished communities. Faith groups were largely responsible for opening hospitals and dispatched missionaries oversees to provide treatment to people in need. Those responsibilities continue today.
Spiritual care has become a more prominent aspect of hospital work in recent years, although fewer Americans attend worship services regularly today than they did in the past. There's been a widespread recognition of the value of paying attention to patients' religious concerns, Shanti said.
"Everyone is talking about the importance of including spiritual care in their work," she noted.
At St. Mark's, chaplains, or people who have been trained to provide religious counseling in a clinical setting, are integrated into groups of care providers.
"We have an interdisciplinary team consisting of a surgeon, nutritionist, nurse, chaplain and others. Everyone on the team should have a general sense of a patient's spiritual needs," Shanti said.
Religious beliefs may influence what treatments a patient is comfortable with or simply bring them comfort before a procedure, said Gary Dittmore, a decision analyst for St. Mark's administration team who is sometimes asked to offer priesthood blessings for patients who belong to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
"It's rewarding when people are more hopeful after meeting with me," he said.
Another benefit of Monday's ceremony was that it allowed hospital workers to learn about religious traditions they might not be familiar with, giving them information that could come in handy at someone's bedside.
"I enjoy doing this each year because it's important to know about different religions," Ottaway said.
This year's event included Native American, Episcopalian, evangelical Christian, Catholic and LDS leaders.
Blessing the caretakers
As Jeff Allen clasped hands with hospital workers at the ceremony, he thought back to his own experiences in hospital rooms. At 18 months old, his daughter nearly died of bacterial meningitis, and caretakers helped keep his family strong and stable.
"A nurse sat with us as we cried," Allen said.
His daughter's near-death spurred him to begin training as a chaplain, which he sees as a ministry of gratitude to the people who give so much to their patients. He served as the Catholic leader at Monday's event, praying with those who sometimes wear themselves out loving others.
Health care professionals sometimes suffer from emotional burnout, but a strong spiritual life can help them cope, Shanti said. The Blessing of the Hands may only happen once a year, but St. Mark's chaplains are always available to meet with hospital staff members.
"As I tell nurses at their orientation, you don't check your life at the door," she said, noting that it's important for caretakers to work through what's on their mind.
Monday's prayers may have been brief, but they helped participants focus on the best parts on their job, said Kerri Ziegelgruber, who preregisters patients scheduled for surgery at St. Mark's.
"It helped me think about why I'm here and what I'm doing," she said. "I'm helping individuals get through what could be one of the hardest days in their life."