Student's CPE Program 'a Very Spiritual Journey'

Posted: 8/8/2016

Patrick Muriithi, Glenmary Seminarian

During Glenmary formation, every Glenmary student participates in a certified, interfaith, 11-week Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) program at a United States hospital. In this summer program, he learns a great deal about providing pastoral care to persons in crisis. Judging by comments from former students, these experiences have had a lasting impact and helped them develop pastoral caregiving skills they can use throughout their future as home missioners.

Patrick Muriithi-a seminarian originally from Kenya who is pursuing priesthood-is the most recent student to have completed CPE, spending the summer of 2015 at St. Mary Medical Center in Huntington, W.Va. (Charles Aketch and Richard Toboso have been in CPE programs during the summer of 2016.) Patrick said he applied to this hospital because of its location in a region similar to Glenmary mission areas.

Reflecting on the CPE program's value, he remarked that "I learned I was able to deal firsthand with people in crisis. It gave me a new perspective on the real work ministers do with people who are suffering. It also provided me with a stronger foundation for my future work as a Glenmarian."

The typical 56-hour week for the CPE students (six eight-hour days; one eight-hour shift as the night chaplain) is challenging, Patrick commented.

The hospital's head of pastoral ministry and other chaplains lead the CPE program. They use classes to share guidelines and insights for carrying out their ministry, in an institution serving people of various religious beliefs from a distinct regional culture. Most patients are not Catholic.

Students also shadow chaplains on their patient rounds to gain an understanding of best approaches. "You keep quiet, observe, and listen-and you can imbibe their methods," said Patrick. 

Later, the chaplains do the shadowing as the students make rounds, so the professionals can share observations and feedback. Patrick commented on how much he learned from other hospital staff members, too.

Every other week, the student shares a "verbatim" with supervisors and peers-a written record of an interview of a patient/family members/hospital staff by that student (as a pastoral caregiver). The verbatim is the subject of analysis and questions, resulting in more learning. Other peer sharing and feedback are also integral to the program.

Situations encountered by students can include patients who are "coding" or dying; very busy, crowded emergency rooms; and emotionally charged meetings with close-knit families.

"I felt challenged, sometimes inadequate, sometimes overwhelmed, like other students," said Patrick. "I had to keep going to overcome those feelings. I saw experienced chaplains do it, so I was able to do it. I prayed to God for strength, and he helped me through it."

He said that, after a period of time, the CPE student is expected to function adequately on his own. But there are occasionally times when he has to seek help quickly from the right person-such as a chaplain or head nurse-in order to respond correctly to a patient or family member in need.

As an example of a caregiving experience, he recalled a female patient struggling with her illness and new social and personal problems, including a lack of mobility, that she would face at home. "I had to get to know her and help her cope," Patrick said, "by helping her explore her own responses to difficult situations, one step at a time. I had to help her figure out the best solutions without imposing solutions on her. And I had to affirm her feelings. She asked me to visit her several times. I felt like I was in the trenches with her. It was a struggle to get to know her beyond her problems. No family members were present.

"I had to use my ‘empathetic imagination' with her (and the other patients and family members), putting myself in her shoes as much as possible.

"I had learned from the chaplains to wait for the patient to reveal her religious beliefs. Then I was able to talk to her about spiritual matters; suggest prayers; and read her Scripture passages that might help her look at what she was thinking and feeling.

"By the end of my 11-week program, I felt like my visits with her had made a difference. She was grateful, blessed and happy. She was able to embrace the beatitude of human struggle, and she knew she had to accept her situation and let go of things somewhat."

Another time, Patrick had to minister to a 90-year-old dying woman and 20 family members. "If you don't panic, you can do it," he said. "I had to be present and empathize with them. I asked the family members questions about themselves and their loved one, and gradually, by the time I had to leave 15 minutes later, I had established some rapport with them.

Looking back, Patrick said his greatest fulfillment came from relationships he built with patients, their loved ones and hospital staff members. The most challenging aspect was serving dying patients and their loved ones.

"God was a constant in my work," he said. "I couldn't have done it otherwise. I prayed quietly, ‘God, these are your people crying to you. Please heal your people.' 

"I also learned the truth of Henri Nouwen's statement about the wounded healer: if you have ever been wounded yourself, you become a better healer.

"The entire experience was a very spiritual journey, and it's one I will remember and draw from in my mission ministry for the rest of my life."

This article first appeared in the August 2016 Boost-A-Month Club newsletter.