A ‘Spiritual Board’ Brings Comfort To The Critically Ill
A chaplain at a New York hospital has designed a board that lets the critically ill communicate their spiritual pain and needs
The spiritual-communications board, designed by Chaplain Joel Berning and illustrated by a fellow hospital chaplain, Seigan Ed Glassing, a Zen Buddhist monk, can be used by people of many religions and spiritual beliefs, from Christians, Jews, Muslims and Hindus, to agnostics and those who “don’t know.” The board allows patients to rate their ‘spiritual pain’ on a scale of 0 through 10 and indicate their emotional state, such as if they are sad or afraid or hopeless. Patients also can make a religious request for a prayer book or candles, or simply for human companionship. One icon indicates “Sit with Me.” Another: “Help me with a decision.”PHOTO:CASSI ALEXANDRA FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
Joel Berning, a non-denominational chaplain at New York-Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center, in the hospital’s chapel. He works with critically ill patients who often are breathing with the help of a machine and can’t communicate.PHOTO:CASSI ALEXANDRA FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
When William Campion was in the intensive-care unit this month after a double lung transplant, he felt nervous and scared and could breathe only with the help of a machine.
Joel Nightingale Berning, a chaplain at Mr. Campion’s hospital, New York-Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center, stopped by. He saw that Mr. Campion had a tube in his neck and windpipe, which prevented him from speaking. The chaplain held up a communication board—not the kind used to check a patient’s physical pain and needs, but a “spiritual board” that asks if he or she would like a blessing, a prayer or another religious ministry. The board also lets patients rate their level of spiritual pain on a scale of 0 through 10, from none to “extreme.”
Mr. Campion, a 69-year-old Catholic, indicated his spiritual pain was acute: 8. Using the picture board, he signaled that he wanted to pray. The chaplain recited the Lord’s Prayer as Mr. Campion followed silently.
Chaplain Berning with William Campion, a patient who was unable to speak while recovering from a double lung transplant. The chaplain used the ‘spiritual-communications board’ to help Mr. Campion express himself and convey his spiritual needs.PHOTO:NEW YORK-PRESBYTERIAN HOSPITAL
“It is not ‘I am nauseous,’ ” the chaplain says of his board, which can be used by many religions. “It is: ‘I am lonely, I am scared, and instead of turning me, play some music or get me a priest.’ ” Chaplain Berning designed the board to help the most helpless patients, “who are awake and looking at you but they can’t talk.”
ICUs have evolved in recent years and even the critically ill are being sedated less than before. As doctors came to believe that heavy sedation—once the norm in such units—could be harmful, many patients are now breathing with the help of machines, and are conscious.
“We have had a paradigm shift in the last several years—more ICU patients being awake and alert,” Chaplain Berning explains. The fact that these patients can’t communicate adds to their frustration, studies show. It also has made it imperative for chaplains to try to offer them a human and spiritual connection, he says, because many patients on these machines feel “trapped.” They have been intubated, meaning they have a tube in their throat, attached to a machine that is breathing for them.
The 32-year-old chaplain, who is nondenominational, persuaded a fellow chaplain—Seigan Ed Glassing, a Zen Buddhist monk who had studied art—to help illustrate the board. The two included a range of faiths and belief systems, including Christian, Jewish and Hindu, as well as New Age, Pagan and agnostic. Colorful icons offer patients the option of a prayer or confession, or simply to have someone hold their hand. Chaplain Glassing said he loved figuring out “what would a blessing look like,” or how to draw “make [me] an altar.” A favorite: depicting someone asking to be read a poem.
The spiritual board is now being manufactured by a private company called Vidatak and a sister company, Acuity Medical Inc., under a licensing agreement with New York-Presbyterian. The companies, with offices in Los Angeles and Annapolis, Md., have sent sample boards to hospitals, with plans to market the board nationally and overseas.
Members of the ICU staff were sympathetic to Chaplain Berning’s efforts. Doctors and nurses were accustomed to seeing clergy in their unit, often administering last rites or comforting relatives of the dead or dying. The spiritual board is transforming the role chaplains have played in the ICU from “consultants for death to consultants for life,” says Matthew Baldwin, a critical-care physician at New York-Presbyterian.