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Stritch alumna serves patients, families as hospital chaplain

Ali Jablonsky, '14

written by Dr. Barbara J. Spies, Communications Arts professor

“Today, spiritual care starts with individually wrapped s’mores cookies for tired COVID staff.”

The communication of a hospital chaplain is a beautiful combination of religious and health communication. We are privileged to have an interfaith chaplain as an alumna of Cardinal Stritch University. She works at a large hospital on the East Coast. Ali Jablonsky, ’14, offers spiritual care during a very short staffed situation throughout these difficult times.  

Ali is a Unitarian Universalist minister. She is employed as an interfaith chaplain, which means that she responds to the spiritual needs of all patients and staff. As a graduate of Harvard Divinity School, she has been well trained in the many faith traditions of humanity. And, more importantly, she treats all faiths with equal care and attention. She can spend time talking with a patient who is an atheist about their fears and about their joys, maybe through a discussion of  their favorite music or TV show. As a former Catholic, she can pray the rosary with an elderly man who just needs his familiar prayers said with him. She can make a Muslim woman feel more comfortable by finding a way for her to have a sterile head covering appropriate for the hospital. Ali prays with hospital staff after a well-loved patient who has been in an ICU for months has died. She comforts families who have to make tough decisions for their loved ones. She brings little cards and treats to a nurse who has struggled with some rough spot in life. She sends a packet of crafts and activities home for the children of a nurse who had a death in the family.  

Ali knows the language of health care. She has been present for situations and procedures that one would never have anticipated as a student studying to be a minister. But, here she is. She carries a pager to respond to codes. She learned early in her Clinical Pastoral education how to substitute details about patients for fictional names, events, family, careers and conditions, in order to be able to speak outside of the healthcare setting about her day. Her stories become a beautiful amalgamation of the hundreds of patients and staff with whom she has worked over the years. Perhaps it helps that she is an exceptional story teller with a colorful, imaginative way of speaking.  

A hospital chaplain needs a sixth sense for what a patient or staff member really needs in the moment. Ali listens to a relative of a patient speak for a while and offers to say a prayer with them. That prayer then becomes exactly what the family member needed to hear and hold close to their hearts while they worry over their loved one. A patient may mention really missing their dog. Ali appears later that day with images of dogs that she has printed to post in the patient’s room. A patient might say how much they miss singing hymns from their church. Ali sits by their side and remembers the words of many hymns, singing for and with the patient to bring comfort.  

Imagine taking what is already a difficult circumstance in an individual’s life and putting that into the setting of a pandemic. Early in the quarantine, when family members were informed that they could not visit, Ali created a list of virtual tours for patients to keep them focused on happier places, soothing experiences, and hopeful futures. You may have seen these on social media in recent weeks. Museums, aquariums, travel destinations, and other locations are all available during these times for a virtual escape. Ali corralled all her friends and family to send her the best from their lists. She compiled a huge resource of these sites so that patients might use the hospital iPads in order to go someplace beautiful.  

In the past, Ali could sit with a family as they waited for their patient to return from surgery. Now, no one is allowed to visit the hospital. Staff might have held hands around a patient as Ali led them in prayer after a death or before a surgery, but that contact cannot happen now. Patients do not have the comfort of a loved one by their side. Staff often do not even have a moment to pause before running to the next emergency. Though, when they can, the staff will step in and be fully present, knowing that family cannot be there.  

When a patient is dying, normally, Ali could call on someone from their religious tradition to come for the final prayers of that faith. For instance, the Anointing of the Sick and the Prayers of Commendation for the Catholic faith would be performed by a priest at the bedside. The Mourner’s Kaddish would be prayed for someone from the Jewish tradition. But, those religious leaders cannot be present during the pandemic. Ali acted immediately to find a solution. She has recordings of these prayers, and others, to be shared in the room with the patient on an iPad. The Catholic prayers are beautiful recordings made by Franciscan friars who she met while a student at Stritch. Ali called on them, and they shared videos they had made. These videos walk through each prayer and rite, noting that they would be said in person, were we not in these circumstances. Ali can share these prayers with her patients, so that they hear familiar words of comfort. But, she can also share the exact words prayed before a loved one with a family member who cannot be present. She can tell that person that their family member was not alone and that the prayers of their faith were spoken.  

I received a Snapchat from Ali this morning. The image was of a large pile of cookies that Ali baked and individually wrapped in plastic film. These cookies are for staff members to pick up on the run as needed throughout the day and night. The message from the Spiritual Care department lets them know that they are appreciated for all of their expressions of support for the health of others during this hard time. It may not be what we typically imagine as the role of a chaplain. But, it meets their needs in a manner that is inexplicable.

“Today, spiritual care starts with individually wrapped s’mores cookies for tired COVID staff.”