One Chaplain’s Response to the Recent Chaplain Profession’s Portrayal in Grey’s Anatomy
Kimberly Russell is a full-time staff chaplain at St. Jude's Children's Research Hospital. As a disclaimer, she is also Pastor Melissa's sister. Kimberly is a fan of Grey's Anatomy, but recently has been frustrated at the ignorance the writers have shown to the very important role chaplaincy plays in the hospital. Below she shares her frustration with the popular ABC show.
I have been a devoted fan of Grey's Anatomy since Season One. Sadly, the most recent episode, I Want You With Me, offended me. I am a professional chaplain in the clinical setting (a pediatric hospital to be specific). I have played the game "And That’s Why They Need a Chaplain" pretty much every episode. I am not offended the writers have not written in chaplains. I understand why they would avoid such characters. With chaplains, the level of drama would subside...surgeons would not have the depth of conversation with patients and families; they would not be the ones to locate religious leaders or provide extensive bereavement support. Issues like the denial of blood products would have a clear voice from a staff person understanding patient's religious rights. I get how chaplains would lessen the drama the main actors would be able to experience.
I am offended because the episodes Seal Our Fate and I Want You With Me both reference chaplains, yet no chaplain ever makes an on air presence. When firefighter Lenny died, in Seal Our Fate, a firefighter shares with his colleagues that their chaplain was in route to inform the spouse and children of the loss. This is totally appropriate. It did, however, make me uneasy that the chaplain did not come with the wife or provide support for the squad injured and distraught at the hospital. That is not unheard of but it is uncommon for a chaplain not to be where the bulk of his/her people are. Once again, I see how a chaplain's presence would lessen the drama of firefighters not following medical orders.
What actually offended me is Grey’s Anatomy highlighting the lack of chaplains for the hospital during the episode I Want You With Me. The engaged couple (firefighter and cop) specifically asked for a chaplain because they wanted to get married urgently due to the female's poor prognosis and possible upcoming death. People with chaplain experience (military, public servants, some private schools and organizations, familiar connection) are more likely to ask directly for a chaplain because they are familiar with chaplains. The blank looks on Avery and April's faces are priceless because obviously they are not familiar with calling on chaplains. Avery attempts to locate a chaplain and, wouldn't you know, not a single chaplain was present in the hospital during an obvious hospital emergency. Each hospital is different, some would have the chaplain on call, others might have the director of chaplain services, yet others would function with volunteers...but the fact that all chaplains were in the field "tending to storm victims" is absurd. Chaplains would most definitely be on the call list during a mass casualty or critical event for the hospital.
Another moment of frustration happened when Avery was on the phone with a hospital employee and asked for a chaplain, Hasan, by name. Obviously he was familiar enough with chaplains to know one by name but unfamiliar with the process to contact one during an emergency. Looking for a chaplain to come to the hospital he asked for "any religion." He was then offended when the person on the other line asked "even a Catholic?" This is not an inappropriate question. Chaplains are ordained clergy through their specific faith tradition and some have specific 'dos' and 'don'ts’ in regard to sacraments and rituals. There are some Catholic chaplains who are not able to marry a couple due to any number of reasons. The exchange in the clip demonstrated how difficult it can be for chaplains to locate the appropriate resource in a time of emergency. We don't keep one of every religious leader stashed in a closet 'just in case'. Religious organizations come with their own political system and it can be challenging to navigate at times. Nevertheless, this shouldn't have been a problem because a chaplain should have been first responder to the hospital, not to the scene of an outside accident.
If that wasn’t enough of a dig at my profession, the following sequence occurred. I was shocked with how nonchalant April was when she mentioned that she could 'go online and get certified by that place on the internet' if it weren’t for her current relational issues. She has spent several episodes struggling with her faith and the importance of Jesus and God. She valued her spiritual relationship. Of all the characters to suggest a quick online certification, which takes the Church out of the equation, April would be my last choice. So Avery goes online and 'gets ordained' and performs a wedding with Bible in hand... part of me wishes the journey to become a chaplain was that easy. Chaplains go through several years of schooling. For Protestant Christian Chaplains (noting this one because it is the path I took), one needs a 4-year Bachelor's Degree, then a 3-4-year Master's Degree in Divinity (or equivalent) depending on the institution and student. My degree was 81 hours. A full graduate load, and only attending in the Spring and Fall would take 4 1/2 years to complete. The education and training does not stop there. After completion of a graduate degree, a chaplain needs to take a year residency. Many institutions require an internship before this residency, which may be taken during the Master's Degree program. Only after all the aforementioned training is complete will institutions hire the individual as a professional chaplain, but the chaplain still needs to complete 2000 hours of professional service before he/she is able to sit for board certification (one can sit prior to 2000 hours for provisional status). Chaplain's maintain annual competencies through 50 hours of continuing education and have peer reviews every 5 years. To relate it to your characters, how would they feel if someone with no training came waltzing in claiming to be a doctor and not only were they allowed to continue practicing but were praised for their ingenuity in a time of crisis?
Due to the inability of this show to recognize my profession as legitimate, I plead that Grey's Anatomy never mention chaplains again. That way people can play the game, "And That's Why They Need a Chaplain" or just be ignorant to the fact that Seattle Grace/Mercy/Grey/Sloan Hospital has a horrible system in place for psychosocial needs of patients, families and staff.
This has been edited and approved by Chaplain Kimberly Russell for publication.
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