By SARA ARTHURS
When a trauma arrives in Blanchard Valley Hospital’s emergency room, or relatives are struggling emotionally as a patient nears death, the Rev. Christopher Schilling is there to provide solace.
Schilling, who became hospital chaplain in June, has spent the past six months working to build relationships with staff and community clergy.
His day typically starts at 8 a.m., as he reviews the list of patients who have been admitted. He visits with as many as he can, although some patients do not wish to talk.
“You’re attentive to body language, attentive to their tone of voice,” he said.
Some thank Schilling for checking in on them, but say they’re OK. He lets them know he’s there if they need him. Other patients are emotionally falling apart and say, “Thank God you’re here.” And sometimes it’s somewhere in between — they just want someone to talk to, and they may end up talking about their grandkids.
If there is a cardiac arrest, or a trauma in the emergency room, or a patient is being extubated and the family needs support, he might get called away from his other duties to help with that immediately. He and the chaplains at Birchaven Village and Bridge Hospice take turns being “on call” for the hospital during the night. They may get called in if a patient is actively dying and they or the family request a chaplain’s presence.
Schilling’s fiancee, Karol Farris, is pastor at Bluffton Presbyterian Church. The couple’s relationship had been long-distance for a year and a half, with Schilling living in Champaign, Illinois, so he was looking for work in northwest Ohio. But the position at the hospital is also a return to hospital chaplaincy, something he had done earlier in his pastoral career and found rewarding.
Schilling, 34, is originally from Hookstown, Pennsylvania. He attended Slippery Rock University in Pennsylvania, where he received an undergraduate degree in communications with an emphasis in journalism. He then attended San Francisco Theological Seminary before completing a one-year residency as a chaplain at Maryview Medical Center in Virginia. That hospital — a 300-bed, Level II trauma center — had its own chaplains, but Schilling was one of four student chaplains-in-training.
In the time leading up to his ordination, he also worked for the Boy Scouts of America, doing outreach, membership and fundraising. The organization helped Schilling — by nature an introvert — gain skills at making connections and building relationships.
Schilling is also in the Air Force Reserve, attached to Scott Air Force Base in Illinois. He is obligated to serve for about 25 days of the year, often filling in if another chaplain is on vacation or unavailable. He said he’d felt “called” to the military since high school and joined in December 2016. He finds it “very rewarding” to work with the airmen.
Schilling’s military connection has helped him at the hospital, too. He’s encountered veterans of all ages among his patients, and there is a sense of connection that comes from serving. He’s also seen Iraq War veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health issues.
“They have a lot of stories,” and his goal is to listen.
At the hospital Schilling sees “a lot, unfortunately” of people affected by opioid addiction. And at Orchard Hall he meets people struggling with depression and anxiety.
Across the country, he said, there’s a need to bring more attention to mental health issues “and help break down the stigma.”
Schilling ministers to people approaching the end of their life and has found that their family may be all over the map in “how they grieve differently.” One person might be devastated as their parent faces a terminal illness, for example, while others might say, “You know, she’s lived a good life” and be comfortable with palliative care.
Schilling sees the medical community becoming more accepting of hospice care, and an emphasis on comfort rather than longevity. His work comes into play here, though, because even if a patient does not want to be resuscitated, “They still want to talk to someone.”
This situation is a challenge, but “it’s a sacred moment,” he said.
And, working at a hospital, “You see the circle of life.” Schilling helps care for those who are dying, but is also in the presence of babies being born.
While a church pastor is there to represent their own faith, a chaplain — while he or she has been ordained in a specific denomination — is not there to impose their own faith on those they encounter, Schilling said. “We are there to meet them where they’re at,” said Schilling, who was ordained in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).
He said some patients ask right away, “What church are you with?” and he tells them he is with the hospital system.
“We’re here for you,” he said. “No matter what your faith background … I meet you where you’re at.”
He said sometimes the best way to do his job is to contact another faith leader, such as an imam for a Muslim patient, or someone at St. Michael the Archangel Roman Catholic Church who — unlike Schilling — can administer last rites to a Catholic patient.
He said he has been getting to know other clergy in the community in his time here, and hopes to meet more. There will be a breakfast for clergy at the hospital in February.
“There is a sense of sacredness” at having conversations with people who are “sometimes at the deepest, darkest points” of their life. He considers this a privilege.
“It’s a blessing to me,” he said.
Probably, Schilling said, the patient and their family won’t remember his name, or what he looks like. And that’s OK. But “They’ll remember that someone was there and provided support to them.”
The previous hospital chaplain was the Rev. Elizabeth Kelly, who left at the end of 2017 after 17 years as chaplain.
“Trying to follow Elizabeth Kelly — it’s kind of like following Babe Ruth,” Schilling said.
He said Kelly, a friend of Schilling’s fiancee, had 17 years of relationships. He’s still working on building these, but he aims to build upon the work she has done while finding his own footing.
One goal is to expand upon the spiritual care available. Schilling said his hope is that someday the hospital, too, might be a site for student chaplains to gain experience.
He’s also starting up some new programs for staff to help make sure they, too, are taken care of.
One is “Code Pause,” a program used by other hospitals in which, after a trauma, such as a tragic death in the emergency room, staff take a moment to reflect and to acknowledge their feelings. Another is “Tea for the Soul,” in which both day and night shift staff will have two hours’ respite from “the difficult work” they do — with tea, refreshments, relaxing music and adult coloring books.
Some staff “unfortunately, see a lot of hard stuff day in and day out,” Schilling said. They focus on their work, but at the same time they need to be able to acknowledge what they are feeling, and need the space and ability to process.
He himself tries, when not at work, to “disengage” from the job. He spends time with Farris, who lives in Bluffton (he lives in Findlay). The couple have two cats they are trying to encourage to get along.
They will marry in August 2019. Schilling said he’s officiated at weddings and thought it “looks easy” — but planning his own wedding has been a different experience.
He said the biggest reward of his work is “working with the patients.”
Sometimes there are bureaucratic stresses. But then he’ll talk to a patient who is dealing with a recent diagnosis and realizes, “I feel called to be here … It’s about the patients.”