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ON THE JOB

Hospital chaplain’s work is a blessing and a challenge

Chaplain Alyssa Adreani spoke with physical therapy supervisor David Nicoloro at Newton-Wellesley Hospital.

Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe

Chaplain Alyssa Adreani spoke with physical therapy supervisor David Nicoloro at Newton-Wellesley Hospital.

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 Chaplain Alyssa Adreani of Newton-Wellesley Hospital, as a female multifaith cleric, laughs at that outdated image.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.

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“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.

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“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 cindy@cindyatoji.com.
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