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Local hospitals expand community outreach, spiritual care services

BY KAYLAN THOMPSON kthompson@paducahsun.com

I

n a continuation of their commitment to the region, Baptist Health Paducah and Lourdes are looking to expand outreach programming and spiritual care services this year.

Since the retirement of 46-year employee Sister Lucy Bonifas back in April, Lourdes' spiritual care department has focused on continuing and furthering her legacy of wholehearted public servitude as it moves forward.

"It'll be hard to fill Sister Lucy's shoes," said Michael Onuoha, Lourdes director of spiritual care since 2011. "All the little things she has done like reaching out to staff, volunteering, it's more or less a tradition now that those things come from Spiritual Care. We're making sure that we keep those legacies she started going."

Bonifas started work as a staff nurse at Lourdes in September 1969. Now 46 years later, she has retired as chaplain, a job she has loved.

"I just felt this is where I belong and I enjoyed what I did," Bonifas said. "My philosophy is if you don't enjoy what you're doing, figure out why you don't like it. Life is too short to be miserable and I have enjoyed every bit of it while I've been here."

Though retired, Bonifas said she continues volunteering regularly at the hospital.

"How we affect other people can be very deeply appreciated in their life and can touch them deeply. It's a blessing to the giver and also to the recipient," she said. "I see a very deep connection between faith, spirituality and health care throughout life, and especially in times of illnesses and trials and struggles. In those times, their faith can be a source of comfort. Other times, their faith is really tested. You respect the individual where they are in their spiritual life, that's what makes all the difference."

Onuoha said one of Bonifas' driving passions during her tenure with the hospital was community education on advance directives, or living wills.

"The patients are the reason we're here, and she always focused on making sure that the patients are heard," he said. "The living will is something that empowers the patients here, so we want to make sure we maintain those wishes. She was very passionate about that and we are keeping that for the sake of our patients and the community."

In keeping with Bonifas' work, he said, the spiritual care department is looking to initiate a monthly group workshop to educate the public on advance directives. During the workshops, which are expected to begin before the end of the year, hospital staff will help community members go through the process of setting up advance directives and fill out the required paperwork.

Onuoha said he also looks forward to joining a systemwide program through the Mercy hospital network called E-Chaplaincy.

The online program will allow patients, families and staff to communicate digitally with a chaplain in the Mercy network.

"That gives everyone in the community and on staff easy access to our chaplains," he said. "Locally, we can start something, and this is something I'm very much looking forward to. Community-wide, we're also looking forward to opportunities to visit churches, providing some education related to spiritual care, more importantly on advance directives, just for them to have a better understanding and empowering them."

Also striving to release patients both physically and spiritually healthy, Baptist Health began and implemented its Congregational Network this year.

Modeled after a successful program at Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare in Memphis, Tennessee, Baptist's program connects patients with the local faith community in hopes of improving patient health and reducing hospital readmissions.

By opting into CNH, members allow Baptist to contact an official representative of their church and give their name, general condition and location when hospitalized. The church takes it from there, checking in on the patients in the hospital and their families at home, following up with them after they're released.

Before the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) was passed in the '90s, the communication lines between hospitals and churches about the care of their people was much easier. Post-HIPAA, that connection has been severely reduced.

A program like CNH allows the faith community to once again legally keep the connection going.

It can be an added lifeline for people when they're at their most vulnerable. It's re-establishing the connection between spiritual and physical healing.

"Holistic care is what we want, to treat the body, mind and soul," said Ruthann Cockrell, a longtime registered nurse and the official nurse navigator for the CNH program at Baptist.

Having the ability to function on a faith-based foundation is a freedom neither Baptist nor Lourdes staff take for granted.

Being able to facilitate a patient's healing process on both physical and spiritual levels is a privilege, even a luxury, said Kim Chester, a nurse with Lourdes.

"This has always been a faith-based organization, and they've always emphasized that, and you don't find that everywhere," she said.

"It's a luxury hospitals have that I don't think a lot of other jobs have. At other jobs, people don't get into a crisis about whether they're going to live or die, will this be life-altering? And they're not faced with the same life-altering decisions, so you have to have a different kind of base to work with. For most businesses, how many of them can be faith-based and not have to run uphill?"

Baptist Associate Chaplain Joel Jackson said he sees a large connection between spirituality and healing, a connection he's grateful hospitals can make.

"If you have strong faith, you typically look at things as a win-win situation," he said. "It's a mind, body and soul connection. They all come together and faith joins them all together."

Nestled in an area known as the "Bible Belt," Onuahu said it's a privilege that they can serve Paducah and area patients in any way they need - even spiritually.

"We need to be able to understand the culture of their spirituality and respect that it's part of healing," he said.

"So when it comes to our hospital, which is faith-based, it's important to us to support patients spiritually, especially when they've just heard about new diagnoses and they know something is going to change in their life and they need someone to talk to, to help them process that. We meet them where they are and more or less empower them and help them to be in touch with what they're going through and find some resources that can help them. So the advantage we have as a not-for-profit, as a Catholic organization, is that we can pray and we're very fortunate for it."

Staff writers Genevieve Postlethwait and Mallory Panuska contributed to this report.

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