Marin General Hospital's Spiritual Care Department Celebrates 30th Anniversary

Program faced concerns in early years that role of hospital chaplain would not be secular enough

GREENBRAE, CA — In 1983, inspired by an inquiry from a young seminary student, Marin General Hospital took its first small and tentative steps to add a chaplain to the hospital’s staff. Today, during National Spiritual Care Week, October 20-26, Marin General Hospital’s chaplaincy service marks its 30-year anniversary with a tribute to past and current chaplains and takes a look back at a long and sometimes dramatic history of service to patients, staff and the community. 

The chaplaincy service, called the Spiritual Care Department, wasn’t always the emotional and spiritual backbone of the hospital that it is today.

Rev. Carol Saysette, Mill Valley, the seminary intern who first floated the idea to hospital staff, says she was led one day through meditation to inquire about a job as a chaplain at Marin General. She was offered a part-time volunteer job and given a small office with a desk.

Most people were delighted with the idea, but not all. According to Rev. Saysette, a few members of the community, as well as some physicians, didn’t believe a hospital should have a paid chaplain because they felt the hospital and its operations should remain strictly secular.

However, basic human need intervened. The night before Thanksgiving in 1983 there was a multi-fatality accident on the Richmond Bridge. Victims and their family were brought to Marin General Hospital. Hospital staff did their best to comfort the distraught family in traditional ways but because the family was Muslim and were expressing their grief according to their own faith the staff did not have the tools they needed.

Rev. Saysette had been out of town visiting her family in San Diego when the tragic incident took place. “Seeing how valuable a chaplain can be in this type of situation seemed to make a few outspoken people change their minds,” she says.

In the years that followed, the hospital hired its first full-time chaplain, Rev. Rex Garrett, who stayed for two years. Rev. Garrett was succeeded by a soft-spoken Lutheran clergyman, Rev. Bruce Murphy, Mill Valley, who retired in December 2012 after 27 years as chaplain. According to the program’s founders and those who worked with him, it has been Rev. Murphy’s strategic guidance of the program and his often 24/7 spiritual care and comfort to patients, staff and the community that has grown, solidified and “embedded” the role of the chaplaincy at Marin General.

“Many times, a hospital chaplain is just part of the peripheral realm of services offered to patients and staff,” says Rev. Sabine Schmid, the current Spiritual Care Department manager and longtime assistant of Rev. Murphy. “At Marin General, the chaplain is right at the center of what is going on, whether in the emergency room, ICU, or other units. The chaplain here is truly an integral part of patient care and staff support.”

Chaplains, staff interns, and volunteers play an often unseen role in patient care in so many ways. They have arranged for transportation and accommodation for homeless individuals released from the hospital with nowhere to go; given shelter on Christmas Eve to a new mother who had delivered her baby early after visiting her husband at San Quentin; and performed monthly memorials for the families of all the young men dying of AIDS during the height of the epidemic in the mid 1980s.

In addition to patient care, the chaplaincy service supports the spiritual care and emotional needs of staff, Rev. Schmid says. “Bruce was always the staff’s “pastor” – providing comfort at memorials, officiating at weddings, or just giving reassurance and comfort when needed,” she points out.

The history of the chaplaincy at Marin General wouldn’t be complete without acknowledgment of the community’s support and involvement over this time, says Rev. Betty Pagett, Petaluma, former pastor of the First United Methodist Church in San Rafael and one of the founders of the department. “We did a lot of grassroots work in getting the support we needed from the medical, religious and financial communities,” she says. “In addition to seed funding from the Buck Foundation and the Marin Community Foundation, donations for the program came in from the congregations of many churches and synagogues in the area. The academic community, in particular seminaries in Marin and the East Bay, came through by agreeing to place interns in our program. They saw the value and they trusted the oversight of the chaplain in ensuring that the experience would be successful for the interns.”

Rev. Murphy adds that many of the program's donations came from patients and family members that were helped by the Chaplains. “That always warmed my heart,” he says.

Although some in the community were cautious when the chaplaincy service at Marin General was first proposed 30 years ago, according to Rev. Schmid, today’s Spiritual Care Department is a perfect example of the unique and important role chaplaincy services play in the hospital setting.

“We take great pride in the open and inclusive nature of our work. We’re there in the midst of chaos, but we’re also there in calmer times, helping to connect people to the network of spiritual as well as secular resources that exist in the hospital and in the community.”

Rev. Schmid says she looks forward to many more years of interweaving the role of hospital chaplain with the needs of the community just as Rev. Murphy had done. On a personal note, she says she had planned to stay just one year after she was hired before dedicating herself to hospice, but the trauma work, the people, and Marin General Hospital itself convinced her to stay an additional 11 years. “Every day I fall more and more in love with what I’m doing and I’m still here!”

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