AT MARIN GENERAL HOSPITAL, there’s one group of specialists who can get called into the emergency room, the delivery room and the waiting room, all on the same day and at any hour, to confer with doctors, nurses, patients and their families. These workers serve on the hospital’s palliative care team and bioethics committee, are on call weeknights and weekends.
The only thing they lack: a medical degree.
Meet the chaplains of the hospital’s Spiritual Care Department, a multicultural interfaith offering that has its roots in tragedy. In 1983, after an accident on the Richmond–San Rafael Bridge caused multiple fatalities, hospital staff found their traditional approaches did not soothe distraught surviving family members, who were Muslim. The hospital chaplaincy, then a part-time volunteer job for a seminary intern, soon became a full-time job for a staff chaplain. Later the hospital added a training program to create “a culturally diverse team to serve Marin General’s diverse patient population,” says Rev. Sabine “Kora” Schmid, on staff since 2003 and the department’s director since 2013.
Schmid, who describes herself as “Lutheran with an edge of Eastern philosophy,” notes that part-time chaplain residents have diverse origins, recently including Kenya and the Dominican Republic; her fellow department members also include Rev. Alberta Buller, a deacon in the Episcopal Church, and Rev. Sara Vurek, a Tibetan Buddhist chaplain and former United Church of Christ pastor who trains the chaplains.
“The care that we offer is not based in any one tradition,” says Vuker, on staff since 2010. “For the most part, it’s not visible what our denomination is. We come in to serve (patients) from whatever their place is.”
“When I walk in a room, I typically don’t say, ‘I’m Alberta from Spiritual Care’ or ‘I’m Alberta and I’m a chaplain,’ ” Buller notes. “I find that closes doors, and I find it scares people, particularly in a trauma situation. I say, ‘I’m Alberta; I came to see how you’re holding up in this place.’ Ninety percent of the time that opens up the conversation there. People love to talk and to have a space to talk about themselves. That’s what I love about this work … I serve atheists to Orthodox and everything in between.”
The palliative care team meets formally twice a week, according to social worker and team member Nadia Frenkel, but its members interact with chaplains “almost every day.” She says she often refers patients and family members to talk to a chaplain when she senses they might need additional support.
“People think that chaplains are for people who have specific religious beliefs, but I always emphasize that all of us have our spiritual needs regardless of our beliefs,” Frenkel says. “When someone is facing a serious illness, it can only benefit that person to have someone available to come and talk and be a guide through this very emotional time, and chaplains are the perfect people to do that … They don’t even have to say a word. They can just sit there, hold hands and be a comforting presence.”
This article originally appeared in Marin Magazine’s print edition under the headline: “Care and Comfort.”
Travel and features writer Jeanne Cooper fell in love with Marin and the Bay Area as a graduate student at Stanford University. After 20 years as an editor and writer for the Washington Post, Boston Globe and San Francisco Chronicle, she began a freelance career that has taken her from the Austral Islands to Zimbabwe, with many visits to Hawaii in between. Her stories have appeared in numerous national and regional magazines, including Hemispheres, Sunset, San Francisco and Nob Hill Gazette, as well as Marin and Local Getaways. The author of several Frommer’s guidebooks, she now lives on the Big Island, where she’s active in animal rescue. She still enjoys exploring Northern California with her husband and friends.