Change is in the air at East Kootenay Regional Hospital, as long-standing chaplain Werner Froese retires on Dec. 13.
The hospital’s first chaplain, Werner began helping patients and their families with spiritual care in 2005. It was soon after the renovations at East Kootenay Regional Hospital, which included a chapel for the first time.
“I approached Ron Foubister, the Presbyterian pastor, to enquire if they had a chaplain here. He said, ‘No, we would like to have one.’ Since I had retired from a church in Chilliwack and moved here, I became available to do that,” said Werner. “As a pastor, I’ve been visiting people in the hospital for 30 or 40 years. I have really appreciated visiting the patients and found that the training I had before was suitable.”
Before Werner came onboard, each Cranbrook minister was on a schedule to be on-call for the hospital, but they were rarely called out.
Over the years, Werner has helped thousands of people in innumerable ways.
“There are some very good memories,” he said.
In one touching story, Werner remembers going into the emergency room and being greeted by the friends and family of a man who had just been brought in. They asked Werner to visit the man, but he was surrounded by medical staff so Werner introduced himself and said he’d be back later.
“The next day I came and immediately this fellow said, ‘What do I do now? I’ve denied God my whole life.”
Werner helped the man approach God in his own way.
“The next day, he was gone. What do we do? Do we say, was he ready? That’s not our call, not at all. We just show them the way.”
Since Werner began the Spiritual Care Program, it has grown to a three-person ministry. Laird Siemens, retired from the Bull River Trout Hatchery, was recruited in 2010. Earlier this year, Sister Nina Glinski became a chaplain, but she was transferred to Halifax not long after.
Now, with Werner stepping down, retired nurse Joanne Wiens began her work as a chaplain on Nov. 18.
“I see it as an opportunity to encourage and support people, and a way to give back to others because I have had so much given to me,” said Joanne.
Werner will be missed, Laird said.
“I’m getting teary just thinking about it — I’m going to miss his mentorship, his counsel, his advice. In many, many ways, this ministry is a child of Werner’s.”
The program provides spiritual support, comfort and pastoral presence for patients, patients’ families and staff of the hospital.
“It’s a compassionate, empathetic ministry,” said Laird, adding that people are often at their lowest in the hospital.
“It’s a time of trauma. It’s traumatic being in the hospital, it’s an unfamiliar background, it’s a diagnosis that maybe you just received.”
“And a big loss of control,” added Joanne.
Mostly, chaplains simply offer a listening ear.
“We are a friend in their time of need. We come alongside them, we help them,” said Laird.
The program is interfaith — not just Christian, but whatever faith that resonates with the patient.
“It is larger than just a Christian organization. We respect the spiritual background of every patient,” said Laird.
“Many patients, when I say I’m a chaplain, ask what denomination. I say I’m from all of them because we represent all of them,” said Werner.
The chaplains also help people who have never stepped foot into a church.
“Some of the best conversations are with people who wouldn’t have a traditional faith or have limited faith or have had faith earlier and lost it and are trying to come back. Those are great conversations,” said Laird.
The chaplains respect when a person says they are not interested in speaking to a chaplain, but prepare for them to change their mind.
“If we respond in kindness, very often we win them over at least on an interpersonal level. Whether there is any spiritual value or not, I’ll leave that to somebody else. But at least we become friends with people by just being kind. Kindness is the gift that’s always the right size and always the right colour,” said Laird.
On Monday, Wednesday and Friday afternoons, the chaplains can be found walking the wards, and there is always someone on call.
Sometimes their service can be simply offering a prayer before surgery, fetching a glass of water, or telling a nurse the patient is in pain.
“We’re available. Everybody knows we’re here. That’s it in a nutshell,” said Laird.
But some connections go deeper. Werner and Laird have both led funerals for patients who have passed away.
“Which is a real honour, because what it says is: they trust is, we bonded,” said Laird.
The Spiritual Care Program is fully funded by donations, much of which comes from Interior Health and local churches. Each chaplain receives a $3,000 stipend each year, making them not quite volunteers.
“We are kind of a hybrid. We don’t get paid the same a professional would get paid, if it was a full-blown chaplaincy program. But we are all retired,” said Laird.
The Spiritual Care Committee is made up of hospital and ministerial staff, who handle donations and recruiting.
To find out more about the hospital chaplaincy program, email firstname.lastname@example.org.