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The Secret Doctor’s current incarnation is a lifelong atheist, from a family where the parents read their children the shorter essays of Bertrand Russell while others were telling Bible stories.
As a medical student, your correspondent was therefore inclined to bracket chaplains in the same category as homeopaths – they might make a few people feel better, but we’d get along just fine without them.
Years of medical practice have done nothing to alter my lack of religious conviction, and the compatibility of a benevolent deity with appalling human suffering is not an issue to address in a 500-word column. But on the matter of chaplains I am happy to acknowledge
I was completely, 100 per cent wrong.
I still have no idea what their official duties comprise of but time and again I have watched them step in and provide a service which no one else could offer.
In my foundation year 2, I called the Catholic priest at 4am for an older woman who was bleeding to death from her upper GI cancer. The medical team, myself included, were fussing ineffectually about, wondering if there was any point giving a transfusion and whether it was too late to try cryoprecipitate.
The chaplain stayed discreetly in the background while there was any chance that our efforts might succeed but as the futility of our interventions became apparent, he stepped quietly forward and began to recite the prayers for the dying, the patient joining him in a whisper whenever she felt strong enough.
The contrast between our frantic bustle and the calm of those extraordinary words (‘Go forth, Christian soul, from this world…’) has stayed with me ever since. In some hospitals a number of different chaplains, each representing different faiths, can be found.
That was far from the only time I saw chaplains prove their worth. From keeping a lonely old man company during a long admission to reassuring a nervous teenager before surgery, to that most poignant of all sacraments, the emergency baptism, I have been impressed by their ability to help where all our efforts are useless.
The most unusual service I ever saw a chaplain provide was on an intensive care unit where a particular consultant tended to get more and more agitated and sharp-tongued whenever we were especially busy, to the considerable discomfort of his team. On the very worst days, when we’d all missed lunch and stress levels were approaching critical, the chaplain would appear as if by magic and discreetly slip him a bar of chocolate.
It never failed to improve matters and everyone on the unit breathed a sigh of relief. We never discovered how the chaplain knew there was a problem or worked out how to fix it. Perhaps that’s what they mean by God working in a mysterious way.
By the Secret Doctor
Thanks for being honest and observant.
It's important for people to acknowledge when they are wrong. I'm an atheist personally but I understand that others believe and I wouldn't dream of ever interfering with that regardless of my own feelings on the matter. It's nice to hear that you (and no doubt the patients) seem to appreciate the chaplains for what they do.
From a Chaplain - thank you for your insight and your honesty. Sometimes we don't understand what medics are doing but we respect them for their professionalism and this article has warmed my heart to know that our, often hidden work, is acknowledged. Remember also that the primary role of a Chaplain is 'spiritual care' which is for everybody and doesn't always include religious care which is an extension of spiritual care which more people find helpful than those who sign up for traditional religious frameworks.
Dying people need and want comfort, of course. It's a terrible shame when family or friends (or doctors) aren't available or able to provide this. It's particularly astounding (if you have some perspective) that this can be provided instead by organisations promoting paedophilia and mass killing, but it does often seem to work (if the patient has sufficiently bought into the myth). Happily most of the English versions of these people are relatively castrated and innocuous (having lost their battle against science and medicine), but I keep a careful eye on them nonetheless. Granted - the individuals in hospitals are often well-meaning, amicable, and wouldn't hurt a fly, but their organisations are amongst the most dangerous in our society (and are still actively fighting against medics and research across most of the world).
Out of interest, would you have been so non-judgemental had the patient asked to smoke one last cigarette on the ward before they died?
Thank you for this wondeful article, which, as the ordained son of a lifelong NHS geneticist and consultant, I used from the pulpit this Christmas.
But I would also like to comment on the previous comment, please, which says "dying people need comfort".
What dying people need is truth. And that truth is that consciousness is not produced by the brain, but it fundamental to both matter and mind, as many scientists would agree, if they are not too scared of their materialst peers.
I am assuming "organisations promoting paedophilia and mass killing" means that religion has colluded in an unhealthy way with worldy power. This is true, but so has science, and medicine, and very other human endevour, including atheism, so we all need a "careful eye" keeping on us.
I write this as a Chplain actively promoting medics and research across ALL of the world.
Thank you once again for the article, and keep up the good work.
I loved your article!
ALL DOCTORS ARE ASSIGNED ANOTHER ANGEL TO HELP THEM SO THEY HAVE TWO GUARDIAN ANGELS. I TOLD THAT TO A RETIRED DOCTOR AND HIS ANSWER WAS I BELIEVE THAT BECAUSE OF THE MANY DIFFICULT DECISIONS HE HAD TO MAKE DURING YEARS IN MEDICINE .
I'm long retired from psychiatry now but I had a somewhat similar trajectory. Many years ago I was an enthusiastic member of the National Secular Society until its relentless pushing of the Dawkinsite superficial view of humanity made me rethink. That rethink was greatly boosted when I read the late Ernest Becker's magnificent book, 'The Denial of Death' and the subsequent social psychology experiments largely confirming the ideas in it by social psychologists Sheldon Solomon and colleagues over more than 30 years. More can be found online in the Ernest Becker Foundation website, but a good place to start is the book, 'The Worm at the Core: On the Role of Death in Life' by Solomon & colleagues (Penguin Books). I haven't changed my own personal skepticism concerning religious ideologies and the horrific uses to which they've often been put in history. I don't believe there are any gods, for instance, although to be honest, I sometimes find myself ambivalently envious of those who can, somehow, find faith in the face of the notorious problem of evil. But yes, for many, including certainly many of the sick and psychologically troubled, chaplains can perform a hugely therapeutic service. For people who aren't religious, secular counsellors can provide the same service. I often feel that THE dilemma of our times can be expressed in some such phrase as the necessity of God but the impossibility of God.
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