Debra Hampton wants to meet in the family room outside of the ICU so that she can be close by the commotion of an unstable patient being taken back for emergent surgery. The lights in the room are soft and the hum of the heating system gives a blanket of background noise. Debra is wearing a burgundy cardigan, she has badges and phones on her body, and is carrying a stack of papers topped with a list of the current hospital census. She is soft spoken but energetic as we talk. Debra is the hospital chaplain. I recently had the opportunity to ask her about her work, and how she approaches her position.
Traditionally, a chaplain provides spiritual guidance and emotional support to patients and their families. The support is offered regardless of a patient’s religious affiliation, but they also provide prayer or contact to local clergy. Debra is different. She does all of these things, and much more.
My first encounter with Debra was when she helped our inpatient care team establish the identity of a Jane Doe. A Jane Doe is someone who is found down without any identification. Debra was something akin to a private investigator for our team. She started with nominal ambulance documentation to trace back to previous whereabouts and ultimately ended up scouring national obituaries to hone in on our Jane’s identity. This type of investigation began with the need to find someone to make decisions for such patients but has become much more over time. I asked Debra if the rumor was true, that she had once identified a patient based solely on their tattoo. She nods. So what is her strategy? “I know everyone has somebody, especially the homeless. I wish I had a formula, but I amaze myself. I go in with intent and a will that I need to find their family”.
Becoming a chaplain was Debra’s third career, coming after being a professional ballet dancer and then working in laser technology sales. Since being an adolescent, she has grappled with finding a sense of purpose. In her thirties, she wrote Mother Teresa on a whim, and ended up going to Calcutta, India to visit and aid the sisters’ mission. “I still think today about how Mother Teresa does it? I have learned over time that whenever you want to do something that is meaningful, if you want to change what’s guiding your heart, you help the poor. It’s so simple. You can do it from here, you don’t have to go to Calcutta”. Finally, in her fifties she stumbled on a newspaper ad for a chaplain training program and has felt at home ever since.
Her job requires immense resilience. She shared some daily routines that help her mentally slow down and process difficult situations faced at work. “[one] I am intentionally really quiet in the morning, [two] I exercise, I am a runner [three] I keep a thought or prayer in my heart that I come back to throughout the day”.
Debra has built her life and now career around seeking out and helping the vulnerable. A role that surpasses chaplaincy, carrying notes of case management, social work and palliative care. She has a position that not only gives her vast gratification but also goes above and beyond the job description to meet the needs of the community. It has been a delight to pause from my training and put context and storyline behind a familiar face and co-worker. A nice reminder to ask questions about those around you.
“I never anticipate what could happen each day. I will walk all over the hospital to see if there is anyone with needs. Then it goes from there, [each day] has a life of it’s own”.
Robin Brown, MD is a first-year resident at the University of Utah Family Medicine Residency Program.