For seven years, Sr Rita has witnessed patients who are dying and held their hands while they breathed their last. She has seen families reunited and reconciled with God. Happily, she has also seen patients recover.
This is the experience of the hospital chaplain, a service that accompanies patients, their families and staff as they face their hopes, fears, anxieties and concerns. It’s a role requiring “openness, prayer and above all, love of neighbours,” says Sr Rita.
Sr Rita really had no idea what she was in for when she was transferred from Brisbane to Marayong in 2014 and found herself being interviewed for a hospital chaplaincy ministry. A member of the Sisters of the Holy Family of Nazareth for 23 years, she had also trained as a social worker. Her interviewer’s words still echo in her mind today: “Hospital chaplaincy is a profound ministry, it is in the heart of the Gospel.”
Seven years on, Sr Rita confirms these words still ring true. “I can say that I am doing just fine,” she says, “because this ministry taught me to know who Jesus is in me and see the invisible Jesus becoming visible in the faces of patients, staff and families I met and continue to meet.”
Many of the patients she meets in hospital are very stressed. They feel vulnerable, helpless, and uncertain. Sometimes they are facing their death. The days when multiple patients die are her most difficult.
She remembers a mother with cancer, who was facing impending death. Ever selfless, and with a strong faith in God, this mother was worried about leaving her daughter. Sr Rita got to know the family well, as the mother was frequently admitted to hospital. After the mother died, Sr Rita worked alongside the doctors and nurses to support the family members. It was an experience she describes as ‘beautiful’. She felt that what she was doing was Christ’s work, and could see the impact it had.
She recalls “That day was heavy and emotionally challenging, but when the daughter, her aunts and uncles approached me, I had no words but just gratitude. The families told me: ‘Sister, thank you for looking after her, we are confident that she is now with God.’”
Sr Rita is currently based at Blacktown Hospital. Prior to the pandemic, before cross-contamination became a significant danger, she worked in several hospitals in Western Sydney.
Her day at the hospital begins with checking the patient list, unless she is called to an urgent case. Sometimes she will talk to staff or family conferences. She joins a Bible study group on a Wednesday, open to staff of all faith denominations. The patients she sees range from newborns in maternity wards, to the elderly in aged care, cancer patients, those who have undergone surgery and everyone in-between.
While at one point during the pandemic she was forced to meet with patients and families via Zoom, she can now visit again in person, and at the time of writing, only has to wear PPE, such as masks, in certain situations.
“In the light of COVID-19 and its impacts,” says Sr Rita, “I must say that the chaplaincy ministry has been intensified through our presence, efficiency and resourcefulness in reaching out to our patients, their families and staff.”
Her greatest joy comes when she sees the impact she has on the lives of families when she helps them receive the gifts of forgiveness and healing.
“This is the greatest reward for me as a chaplain,” she says. “And this speaks volumes as to our valuable service to patients, their families and staff in the hospital.”
CatholicCare’s 15 chaplains provide spiritual and emotional support in seven hospitals and three correctional centres in the Diocese of Parramatta.
Your compassionate gift and prayers today will assist our CatholicCare chaplains to carry on the work of Jesus in the footsteps of the Good Samaritan. To donate, please call 02 8838 3482 or visit yourcatholicfoundation.org.au/appeal