Hospital heals soul

Deb Howie's job sometimes starts before she ever leaves her home. She goes through the normal routine that people would assume hospital workers do before they head to work--dressing, eating a quick meal, putting on their shoes, etc.--Howie, not o...

A service is held at the CHI St. Alexius hospital chapel. (Submitted photo)
A service is held at the CHI St. Alexius hospital chapel. (Submitted photo)

Deb Howie's job sometimes starts before she ever leaves her home. She goes through the normal routine that people would assume hospital workers do before they head to work-dressing, eating a quick meal, putting on their shoes, etc.-Howie, not only does all of those things, she also says a prayer when she's called in.

"Whenever I get called in, I start praying at home. I don't know what I'm going to get into, it could be a death, a trauma, a death of a baby," Howie, CHI St. Alexius chaplain, said. "It could be anything, and it's hard to prepare for these things, so you just depend on the spirit to give you the right things to say, when to say them, how to handle the family, how to comfort them. And watching God do that through you is probably the most amazing thing ever."

In her role, as the hospital's only full-time chaplain, she visits with patients, families and staff to offer prayer or, in some cases, just to lend a listening ear.

While most people may associate chaplains with patients that are in serious conditions or death, Howie said they also have joyous moments where she can share life with new moms, babies, miracles and successful treatments and surgeries.

"I walk into a room and introduce myself, and they will say, 'A chaplain, oh my goodness I must be dying,'" she said with a laugh. "Sometimes our biggest job is just to listen. We listen a lot more than we talk."


Howie said she gets to be a part of some of the most intimate moments of peoples' lives.

"(It's an honor) getting to see a birth of a baby (or) being with families when a loved one is dying. You know as sad as that may seem, you know they're both the same thing," she said. "They're going from one world to the next, and it's just an honor to be present at both of those things and everything in between."

John Odermann, the new manager of missions at CHI, said that while the chaplains are there to help with loss and grief, their job is also to comfort people and let them know they are not alone.

"When you're in the hospital, whether you're the patient or a family member, there can really be a feeling of being alone," he said. "The experiences that you have in a hospital are some of the most potentially spiritually formative experiences of your life, whether it be a birth or a death or even a trauma that goes on, whether it be for the patient or for the patient's family. We believe we need to be able to be there to provide that spiritual care."

Howie said that the death of children are always the toughest for not only herself but for the staff at the hospital.

After especially tough cases, Howie will hold debriefings for the staff to try to help them overcome the feelings they may be having.

She said has to make sure that she fills herself up spiritually so that she can give back to the families and patients. And sometimes she said that she just needs to let it out, go home, put in a sad movie and cry.

"You can't pour from an empty cup," Odermann said. "If our nurses, our doctors, aren't there fully from a spiritual standpoint, they can't provide the care that is necessary for the patient. They are human beings just like everybody else. It's important to be able to lean on each other."
Because of confidentiality, what happens with patients has to stay within the hospital. Howie said that she, Odermann, and on-call chaplains Father Warren Heidgen, Sister Gladys Reisenauer, Deacon Bob Zent and MaryAnn Braun hold a monthly meeting to discuss how they felt about certain cases or how they could improve.


Heidgen travels from the Assumption Abbey in Richardton for mass twice a week where patients, family, staff, and community members can listen to his ministry.

For patients that are not able to attend, mass is broadcasted via television so they can watch from their room. A group of volunteers will also go to the rooms of patients who wish to participate to give communion.

Heidgen said that in one case when there was a stillborn, he was amazed to find both sets of grandparents, both parents and all four siblings of the unborn baby in the room while the mother held her child waiting for him to offer prayers.

"That was kind of an amazing thing to see the depths of faith that some people have when they come to the hospital," he said.

For the past three years, the hospital has provided a burial service in the fall for the families of babies who died during a miscarriage or as stillborns.

While the hospital is a Catholic hospital, all faiths are accommodated, and Howie said that she checks in on every patient, no matter their faith, to ask if they need to talk or a prayer-which sometimes might just lead to a talk about the weather.

Other times, she visits patients that might not have much time left, and she said it's vital to just let them know they are important and their life was important.

"I think what I've seen over the years with people dying, because I also work with hospice patients, and I think what they want most is they want to know that their life mattered, that they made a difference ... that they are going to be remembered after they die," she said. "If we listen to their story, it tells them that they are valued. And if they are valued, they mattered."


While most of the patients at the hospital are in and out within a couple of days, completely healthy, Odermann said that sometimes their job is to heal what cannot be seen.

"It's not necessarily all about stitching up a cut. There's those cuts that go deeper ... and a lot of times those cuts are a lot deeper than the physical cuts," he said. "And if we can help send them on a path of healing spiritually, I think that's a role that this hospital plays."

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