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Following the Patient's Spiritual Lead

A Q&A with The Rev. Mark Buchanan and chaplain Ryan Campbell

BY Kathy LaTour
PUBLISHED March 14, 2010

CURE asked the Rev. Mark Buchanan (top photo), who manages seven chaplains at UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, and Ryan Campbell (bottom photo), a chaplain with UT Southwestern, to discuss how they assist cancer patients with diverse faith traditions. (Read more about the role spirituality and faith can play during and after cancer treatment in “Keeping the Faith”.)

CURE: Rev. Buchanan, you come from a Protestant faith tradition. How does this affect your interaction with patients?

Buchanan: One of the primary components of being a chaplain is that you don’t lead with your faith perspective. You go into the patient’s room seeking to understand what the patient is about. So the visit from a spiritual perspective is to help the patient gather their own resources and to look at how we can help in this moment.

We represent spirituality from any perspective, whether that’s Buddhist, Native American, Catholic, or Church of Christ. If we see that bringing in someone of their faith tradition is the best way to help, we will find someone of that persuasion who can come in and meet the patient and then we back out. 

It’s not about us. It’s about the patient, and us helping find the appropriate resource. If a Muslim needs an imam, then we bring one in. 

We let the patient express and be emotive about what is going on. It helps in the curative and healing process to get out the emotions because it lets the other internal pieces of what the doctors and nurses are trying to do get further in. Being that sounding board and the kind of person who says, “Let me hold your hand,” is what helps the patient process important feelings, whether it’s religious, family, or systemic. 

CURE: Ryan, you call yourself a Zen Catholic, having been raised a Catholic but having spent many years practicing Buddhism. Can you offer an example of a non-Judeo-Christian faith tradition you have assisted with?

Campbell: I was called to minister to a woman who found her spiritual path in the Native American tradition. She had come to the hospital for a lung biopsy, but, knowing what they would find, decided to spend time with her family for her remaining days. The day I met her, we shared our journeys of faith and prayed a Native American prayer for her upcoming journey. We called to the waters, mountains, breezes, and growing things, and offered her spirit to be among them, dancing with the Great Spirit that unites us all.

She was readmitted months later, and a family member asked me to prepare a service for her that she could be a part of; one where she could celebrate her life with her family and friends. I put together a spirit-sending ceremony and took it to her for review on Friday. On Monday, I learned she had died; I was crushed that we hadn’t been able to have the service, but her family said friends and family had offered prayers and done the service all weekend. When new people came to visit, the service was said again. The family brought a drum for the ritual, and the patient’s story and the stories of those who loved her intertwined throughout the weekend in a very sacred way. 

After her death, I celebrated the service again in her backyard. We shared stories with a talking stick, and her daughter sang a song in the native Cherokee language for her mom. There were Christians, atheists, and Jews alike at this gathering, and I believe all of us felt a deep, palpable unity of spirit as we celebrated this woman’s life, her passing, and the journey ahead.

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