Voices from the Field: Enhancing Well-Being Through Faith
Voices from the Field: A Blog Series
Enhancing Well-Being Through Faith
Before applying to become a chaplain two years ago, John Ahola had been a Lutheran pastor for fourteen years. He understands the need to “practice what he preaches” when it comes to personal well-being.
At hospitals, being a chaplain is quite different from being a pastor. Chaplains are a listening ear. They are a pillar of support, emotionally and spiritually, for patients, patients’ family members, and hospital staff. As Ahola describes it, he never knows what he’s going to encounter when he answers a call and enters a room.
The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in tighter restrictions, shorter staffing and, for a time, spiking case numbers. During this “hyper grind,” it becomes easy to get frustrated, over-tired, and generally lose track of one’s overall health, Ahola said. It’s an effect that he’s seen in himself, along with other nurses and staff members he works with daily at Altru Health System in Grand Forks, ND. Though Ahola is stationed in the healthcare provider’s flagship hospital facility, Altru Health System serves a 17-county region comprised of more than 200,000 people across northeastern North Dakota and northwestern Minnesota by way of dozens of medical service facilities.
Ahola also has first-hand experience with a pandemic symptom that nearly every large hospital in the state has had to deal with – loss of revenue. With many regular hospital visits and voluntary procedures put on hold for a majority of 2020, several departments have been hit hard financially, including Ahola’s pastoral care. Since June, he’s been the only chaplain on staff at Altru.
“The pace is a lot faster now,” said Ahola shortly before Christmas, nearly 11 months into the COVID-19 pandemic. “People are getting back into a more normal routine with surgeries and other procedures. But now I have the whole hospital to take care of.”
Altru’s sole chaplain takes pride in his Finnish ancestry, and Finns hold on to something they call “sisu,” which means grit, bravery, and resilience in the face of adversity.
If the pandemic were a three-month slog, and the virus was gone, a stoic Finn could just push and shove through what they needed to do, according to Ahola. “Well, sisu only gets you so far,” he remarked. “Looking at 11 months, you can’t do it for that long. You have to find something that gives you some joy or peace, and something that reenergizes you.”
Ahola says that one of the biggest lessons he’s learned is that he can’t do everything. Many healthcare providers feel an urgency to “give, give, give,” but opportunities need to exist for balance so providers can regroup. “That’s probably the major thing that I’ve been relearning through COVID, and being a chaplain,” Ahola said. “If I do too much, then I won’t be able to do what I need to do for somebody else.”
An introvert by nature, Ahola finds that balance in and around the comforts of his home near Gardner, ND, with his family. Situated on a 10-acre “hobby farm,” there are always projects to work on and things to fix. In his words, it’s nice to putz around in that way. “Our very spoiled golden retriever also keeps us busy,” he chuckled. And, of course, his faith has always been a point of rejuvenation during stressful times. It’s typical for him to take a break during the day in order to walk, pray, and perhaps read from scripture. He describes the activity as a means to refocus.
“It’s about realizing that you’re frustrated, because you’re a human being, and refocusing because you’re most likely not frustrated with the next person that you’re likely to encounter,” Ahola said. “Being able to protect patients and coworkers from my ‘stuff’ is a big piece of being a chaplain.”
The chaplain is acutely aware that the aforementioned “balance” is easier said than done. As Ahola makes his rounds, tending to the needs of those in care, he also keeps in mind his role of being a “pressure release valve” for the system at-large. When nurses and others on the floor need a safe ear to talk to, Ahola is ready to be the person to help them build resiliency in spite of the stressors and difficulties they face as medical professionals during a public health crisis.
“Some people describe chaplaincy as being the ‘soul’ of the organization,” Ahola said. “I try to help people so they don’t burn out, because I’d rather have you be angry and venting your frustration out on me than saying, ‘I’m done with this.’
“We have a lot of really good people, and we don’t want them just walking away. We want them to feel like they’re supported, and like they’re doing a good job.”
Ahola shared a story from back in October, when he realized that the pandemic’s pressures were reaching a breaking point with even the most resilient of staffers. In particular, one nurse who was typically kind-natured “just about bit my head off,” Ahola said.
“One of the things that I did was I went through and performed a ‘Blessing of the Hands,’ a small prayer for staff that wanted it,” Ahola recalled. In that moment, the chaplain recreated what some of the nurses may have experienced when they graduated from nursing school.
The “Blessing of the Hands” is a ceremony in which the hands of those soon to heal others are anointed. With hands extended, palms up, Ahola anointed hands and said a short prayer, or words of thanks and affirmation. Chaplains are trained to be sensitive to peoples’ religions, as they typically work in multi-faith organizations.
“That moment of prayer for them created a change of attitude in the hospital,” Ahola said. “What it reinforced for me was the fact that people are going to take better care of themselves, and each other, if they know that somebody cares about them.” That reinforcement is what Altru’s chaplain continues to bring the patients he serves, visiting them during perhaps their most difficult moments and hearing their stories. Despite the challenges he faces in performing that duty, he still enjoys what he does.
“By being the person that patients and nurses can feel safe with, I feel like I make a difference in peoples’ lives,” Ahola said. “My hope is, as a dad and as a chaplain, that we actually learn some good habits from this experience. And maybe we will change some of our behaviors to keep ourselves healthier, in all respects.”