Think of a chaplain, and — if you’re of a certain age —the quirky character of Father Mulcahy from the TV series “M*A*S*H” might come to mind. Chaplain Alyssa Adreani of Newton-Wellesley Hospital, as a female multifaith cleric, laughs at that outdated image. As Adreani, 41, likes to point out, she isn’t hanging out in the Newton hospital’s chapel and doesn’t wear a collar or a cross. She makes the rounds of the neonatal intensive care unit, oncology, ICU, orthopedics, and medical/surgical units, following her personal Golden Rule of chaplaincy: “Wear comfortable shoes.” The Globe spoke with Adreani about how hospital chaplains are considered part of the treatment team, sometimes even improving health outcomes.
“Early on in my training, I would get questions like, ‘Are you a priest? A nun?’ I would get flustered but then realized that people are curious. Then they would say, ‘You don’t look like a chaplain,’ to which I would reply, ‘What does a chaplain look like?’ I did learn the hard way not to wear a black suit to work. I once wore one and the patient saw me and turned white, as if I was preparing for their death bed.
“To become a board certified chaplain requires a rigorous preparation process that includes 1,600 hours of clinical training and ministry. One of my first days of my internship, I walked into a patient room, and she was crying and said, ‘Why is God punishing me?’ I got thrown into the deep end right away on that one.
“Life’s most significant events regularly occur in the hospital. I do deal mostly with death, illness, or decline, but I also visit the maternity units. It is an incredible blessing to see both ends of the spectrum. I’m really lucky to work at a hospital where spiritual care is valued. That said, people may misunderstand what a chaplain does or does not do. For example, patients may worry that a chaplain will judge them or try to convert them — that’s definitely not what we are about. We also, unfortunately, can’t perform miracles.
“I can’t assume anything when I walk into a room and see a person for the first time. People surprise me every day. The way in which people experience and practice their faith and spirituality is amazing. Everyone has a story — it is my privilege to listen to it. A lot of patients or families find it helpful to talk to a neutral party. They may just need to vent, to think out loud, to process something. They may want to hold a hand and pray, or they may just want someone to sit with them to bear witness to the life that is passing.
“Some of my most memorable experiences have been really tough — watching a young mom die, blessing a deceased toddler, holding a stillborn infant. These are excruciatingly difficult and a constant reminder of life’s fragility. There are definitely hard days; days when I am horrified by how unfair and unpredictable life can be.
“Being a chaplain has given me a deep thirst for life. I don’t want to let it pass me by. I want to do everything I can — run up mountains, travel, go skydiving, learn a new language. I’m a runner, and being a chaplain hasn’t made me run faster, but it’s made me appreciate running more. When I run, I pray for my patients, the staff, and others. I think about those who can’t run. I run a little further for them.”Cindy Atoji Keene can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.