The Gift of Presence
For nearly two weeks, those of us in the Saint Paul Area Synod have been blessed by the presence of ou[...]
The Saint Paul Area Synod has 25 chaplains serving in hospitals, treatment centers, and care facilities throughout the region. Chaplains work to provide counsel, support, and spirit-led guidance to people who may need it more than usual, such as patients in hospitals, in hospice, or in addiction treatment centers, as well as those serving in our military. But one chaplain in our synod serves in a highly-specialized call as an Emergency Medical Services (EMS) Chaplain. In this call, the Rev. Russell Myers cares for the stresses and mental health needs of paramedics, EMTs, and dispatchers at Allina Health EMS.
“This…position resembles the role and function of military chaplains,” the Rev. Russ Myers says of his call with Allina Health EMS. “I’m ‘embedded with the troops,’ riding with ambulance crews and sitting along with dispatchers, building relationships with frontline staff and following up after potentially stressful incidents.”
Myers was a chaplain at Allina Health’s United Hospital for twelve years when he was asked to consider serving as EMS chaplain. Noticing that EMS work can carry a lot of emotional weight, both Myers and Allina came together to ask, “How can we help?”
So in 2007, Myers began his EMS chaplaincy as an on-call position in combination with his work at United Hospital. With the privilege of crafting the position himself, Myers & Allina agreed that he would be proactive, rather than reactive. Or, as Myers describes, “I’m not waiting in the office for the phone to ring.”
As Allina EMS saw continued growth, it became apparent that the organization would benefit from having more chaplain hours. The position increased to half-time in 2008, which allowed for more time to do ambulance ride-alongs. Myers continued to work half-time at United Hospital until the fall of 2015. “I served at United Hospital for 22 years, and had anticipated retiring from there some day," Myers reflects. "But I began to see my EMS work as an opportunity to develop a model for chaplaincy ministry in a unique setting. It’s a combination of health care, public safety, and workplace chaplaincy. We take care of the providers, so they can take care of the patients.”
As it is, chaplains work differently from congregation-based pastors. Rather than proselytizing, chaplains provide spiritual care that draws upon the individual needs and hopes of the person in need. “I reach out, recognizing the person might be going through a hard time,” Myers relates. “But it’s up to the person to reciprocate.”
Myers’ role changes day-to-day. Sometimes he rides with evening crews, or checks in with Allina’s rural bases. He spends time in the communications center to sit with dispatchers. Myers also uses patient care reports to follow up with employees after urgent, ‘lights and sirens’ pediatric transports. “When I learn of a clinician who has experienced a critical incident, or had a series of difficult calls, I schedule myself to ride-along with them,” Myers says. “There is no hidden agenda, no suggestion that they may need additional support. My presence is an acknowledgement that they have a challenging job, and to show that we, as an organization, care about them.”
In his call, Myers also aims to focus on long-term wellbeing rather than individual incidents. Reminding us that stress is a normal response to an abnormal event, he provides debriefings and one-on-one support, but also emphasizes the “work of creating and nurturing a culture of support.” Myers works to build relationships with the employees he cares for, making himself accessible in a variety of ways so that no one feels excluded from his care.
As for Myers, he insists that the work of being a chaplain in a high-stress environment doesn’t get easier, it simply becomes more familiar. “We come face-to-face with the hard realities of human suffering,” he reflects. “With experience, the ‘fear factor’ is less than it used to be. Situations that used to scare me aren’t so scary any more. I still experience some initial anxiety as I make the mental shift necessary to respond to a crisis. I notice a heightened sense of awareness, faster heartbeat and other physical responses, but I’m not as frightened. I observe my EMS co-workers responding in much the same way.”
“We have a broader base of experience to draw on and even though the current situation isn’t exactly the same as something we’ve seen before, we gain confidence in our abilities," Myers concludes. "It’s not easier, but it is more familiar.”