On Call: Spirituality, Wellbeing and Patient Care

According to a December 2020 study published in the Journal of Public Health, the past year of global unrest that’s been caused largely by the COVID-19 pandemic has brought a significant focus to the impact of spirituality on wellbeing. One of the greatest challenges for many individuals over the past year is that a powerful resource they’re accustomed to turning to in the toughest of times—namely, their place of worship—may have closed temporarily in efforts to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.

For someone who routinely goes to church, the inaccessibility of that space may cause added stress during this time; while from another angle, reports show that the pandemic has caused many people to carve out a spiritual practice for the first time, or to return to the faith practice they once left. In any case, faith seems to be playing an extra-powerful role in our world lately.

However we approach spirituality in this period, science suggests that it may indeed offer significant benefit not only to our emotional wellness, but to staying physically healthy, as well. Data in recent years has indicated that patients dealing with stress, chronic illness, and even those who have suffered stroke may experience lower levels of depression and higher physical quality of life when they’ve engaged in a spiritual practice. Additionally, a 2016 neuroscientific study found that faith practices such as prayer or meditation activate the same areas of the brain as do reward, romantic and parental love, and even music; while a 2008 study discovered that meditation causes serotonin, the “happy chemical,” to increase and improve mental health in individuals who engage their spirituality, as well.

At Penn Highlands, we have professionals who believe in, well, belief. “Spirituality is extremely important to a patient’s health,” says Oksana Palatna, D.O., a physician with Penn Highlands Neurology. “Thought is a chemical process, and that chemical process can be good energy, or bad energy.” Palatna calls attention to the connection she sees between spirituality, one’s attitude, and healing. “Patients who have a better outlook on life tend to do much better.”

In her neurology practice, Palatna—who says she herself is spiritual—has noted that more patients seem to be relying on a higher being these days. “I see that this pandemic has switched people’s thinking, definitely. People are much more spiritual.”

Since its original founding more than 100 years ago, Penn Highlands Healthcare has always placed faith at the center of patient care—which is one reason patients witness evidence of that tradition around our health system. Just as examples, at Penn Highlands Elk, patients are welcomed onto campus with a cross and a statue of the Blessed Mother, while at Penn Highlands DuBois, mementos from the order of Catholic sisters who founded the hospital are displayed. Another key presence is the role of the hospital chaplains or community clergy who regularly see patients. Penn Highlands Elk employs a part-time chaplain, while as the hub of the health system, Penn Highlands DuBois relies daily on its Pastoral Care team. Currently this small team, led by Pastor Dave Nagele with Pastor Kevin Orndorff, and Pastor Charlene Lauver at inpatient behavioral health, see nearly 300 patients in a typical week, as well as the patients’ loved ones. Nan Apps, PHH System Director of Patient Experience, says the team of chaplains and chaplain assistants across Penn Highlands comes as a valuable complement to Penn Highlands’ clinical services, as the team provides comfort, caring, and emotional and spiritual support.

Nagele and Orndorff are strongly committed to this. For 35 years, Nagele has been known as the pastor at the Brockway Church of God and since 2008 has been a revered figure at Penn Highlands. Similarly, Orndorff has pastored at Temple Baptist Church for 27 years and came on board at Penn Highlands as a student chaplain last winter. Both went through a program known as Clinical Pastoral Education, a requirement for their roles that comes with two units of coursework and a minimum of 800 hours of training that includes 25 hours per week of spiritual practicum in healthcare. This education offers direction on dealing with many patient needs, from surgery to trauma to palliative care and much more. It also offers perspective into a range of faiths. Both Nagele and Orndorff are Christian ministers, but they say from patient to patient, they honor any faith tradition. “Most important is that we go into the rooms seeing what the patient needs,” Orndoff says. “Not what we can bring them, but what do they need?”

Their commitment to the work is substantial, but so is the support they deliver. “As with anyone facing the unknown,” Orndorff says, “there is fear, and there is anxiety. They could be going to surgery, or hearing the result of a test. We try to let them know we understand what they’re going through.” Nagele adds, “By coming in and trying to meet their need in the moment, we get their minds redirected.”
The pastors say that for professionals in their field, it’s very common to witness a significant shift in demeanor from the time they encounter a patient, to the time they leave. “There are very few cases when there hasn’t been a change in their face, a sigh of relief, a peace that comes over them,” Orndorff says.

But they refuse to take all the credit. Across Penn Highlands, faith support services typically work in collaboration with the clinical care staff. “We like to be a part of a team,” Nagele says. “It’s a whole team effort with the doctors and nurses.” Orndorff agrees, highlighting their efforts to uphold the work of the clinical staff: “We’re there to support the doctors. We always pray for them.”

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the pastoral care team has played an even bigger role than usual among clinical staff. Recognizing the extraordinary dedication employees have put toward patient care, Penn Highlands leaders recently called for critical care staff to receive regular visits from the pastoral care team. Nagele says they pray for and with staff and have worked to provide emotional support during this difficult era. “We remind them that they’re doing an incredible job,” Nagele says. “It’s a professional relationship we have with them, but they also need a friend. Some come back later and thank us,” he says, chuckling as he recalls one nurse who said, “I know I’m not supposed to, but I’ve just got to hug you.”

All this as another way we mean it when we say at Penn Highlands, we’re here—here for you. To learn more about how we can care for your emotional and psychological wellness needs, visit www.phhealthcare.org/bhs. To learn more about Dr. Palatna and the Penn Highlands Neurology team, see www.phhealthcare.org/neurology.