Hospitals offer ministry of presence

By | March 5, 2009

“It can happen to all of us,” said Viste of cancer. And it isn’t “until we had a loved one who had to go through it, you have no idea all the levels of your being that are challenged,” he said.


John Viste, chaplain at St. Vincent Hospital, is pictured at the hospital’s chapel. He and Connie Worzalla, pictured at left, offer comfort and spiritual support to cancer patients and their families. (Tom Knuth | St. Vincent Hospital)

Hearing the words, “You have cancer” is overwhelming. And those who will receive treatment at the St. Vincent Regional Cancer Center can expect to soon meet the smiling, friendly face of Worzalla. Her role as patient care coordinator is to help the patient, family and loved ones take a deep breath, assess the situation calmly and with a whole health approach be guided through their cancer treatment with not only the medical, but spiritual and emotional support they need.


“People always ask me, ‘Isn’t it depressing working in this line of work?'” said Worzalla.

Her job is one she loves, something she looks on as a gift from God and it’s with “a strong faith base” that she does her work. “I couldn’t do this without his help,” she said.

Worzalla’s career as a registered nurse has been filled with variety, including general medicine and surgery, intensive care and stints working directly with cancer patients in the hospital and in hospice.

“I think people tend to think of cancer as being more fatal and that’s a misconception in many of the cancers,” she said. There are cancers that are “life-shortening,” she said, but there are a lot of people who have received treatment and are doing well, she continued.

“It’s not just that you have cancer, but it’s also in how you’re dealing with it,” said Viste. The initial reaction to cancer is, “It’s a death sentence … this is it … it’s the hammer square between the eyes,” he said.

But, he continued, “Getting through cancer, you may find yourself stronger,” not necessarily physically, but spiritually and emotionally.

The soft-spoken and busy Worzalla is never without her pager. “Every day is different. I have no day that’s the same as the next day,” she said.

stperegrinewebPrayers to St. Peregrine

As part of our series on Coping with Cancer, The Compass invites our readers to submit names of friends and relatives who are battling cancer. At the end of our series we will publish the names, along with a Prayer to St. Peregrine, patron saint of cancer patients. All of our readers are then invited to offer prayers for those listed. Send names to [email protected].

It’s up to Worzalla to provide that “neutral listening ear” as she meets with each patient to do an assessment that reviews any physical, psychosocial, nutritional, financial, spiritual or relational issues that need to be addressed during the patient’s treatments at the Regional Cancer Center. Sometimes there is only one visit; other times a patient needs regular contact with Worzalla.

She lets people know that “no question is a dumb question.” And, she emphasized, there’s no right or wrong way to deal with cancer.

You’re apt to see Worzalla in the cancer clinic, checking in with patients. A simple greeting can lead to a much-needed conversation. And she’s also there prior to a cancer surgery or after. Her role is always to serve as a “safe place” for patients to “unload,” she said.

She sees many tears as the patient care coordinator. “I don’t mean to make them cry or the family member,” she said, but tears often serve as a relief, she continued. “Some men won’t cry anywhere else but here,” she said.

Without a spiritual base, said Worzalla, the healing journey can be difficult. “I feel bad when they don’t have that faith base.”

People who have the attitude that, “This is not the end-all. That there’s so much more past this,” are the ones who cope the best, she said.

Worzalla encourages people to ask for help from their local parish, and if they haven’t been involved with church for a while, to start. She recommends talking to the parish secretary. “They know exactly who to call,” she said.

“One of the greatest benefits of being a chaplain,” said Viste, is that “we use active listening as a primary tool.” As he listens to a patient and their loved ones, he gently guides them to discover the strengths that they have. Every patient is different, he emphasized, but “you end up at your destination.”

As he enters each room he says, “Lord, do with me as you will.” He has learned that everyone is spiritual in his or her own way. That’s the advantage of a religiously-affiliated hospital, he said, “You’re not doing it alone.”

What is it the chaplain brings to the patient and loved ones? “Presence,” said Viste, “that the person doesn’t think that God has forgotten them.”

“I think that’s the thing with cancer, if you had to say what is it, it’s the journey,” he continued.

What can an individual do to help a friend, a loved one, who is on that journey? Viste’s best advice: “Just to let them know you’re there.”

“It’s not the ‘what’ you do, it’s the ‘why’ you do,” he continued. Be an active listener. “How are you really doing?” That’s a good question to ask of someone you care about, he said. And don’t be afraid to let people express their concerns, fears and hopes, he said. “It’s a family journey,” said Viste. “It’s a community journey.”

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