IAN Maynard knows what it is like to suffer, after losing three friends to suicide in his town of Lithgow in the early 90s.
The experience threw him as he was only “19 or 20” at the time. But instead of wallowing or despairing, he acted on it, volunteering for Lifeline on weekends.
“What I learnt from that time was really how to listen,” he said, which is his whole focus in his position as pastoral services co-ordinator at Hawkesbury Hospital.
Ian said his job is about being a presence, and a set of listening ears. It’s not about religion unless the patient desires, and it required 400 hours of training to prepare him for his role.
“We connect with people on what’s meaningful to them – nature, animals, other humans, or a faith or belief system,” he said. “If we identify that people want religious help we connect them with clergy.
“Pastoral services is just to be with the patient and their family in that moment and listen and be that presence. Being in hospital can bring up a lot of emotions.
“Someone once described us as ‘holding the emotional vomit bucket’ to let them vent.
“It’s for people with faith or no faith. The majority have no faith, they just want to talk. Other carers don’t usually have the time to sit and listen. We are paid to listen to people. Listening is a form of spiritual hospitality.
“When they realise you’re non-judgmental, with no agenda, they go ‘this person gets me!’ and they open up to you.”
He explained that their job isn’t to fix people’s problems, in fact they have to resist that urge. “We don’t get involved in their story; we concentrate on what’s happening in their heart,” he said, putting his hand on his. “We listen and reflect back what’s happening to them, but concentrating on what’s happening in their heart.
“We validate people’s feelings but don’t get caught up in the story. We have to be comfortable with the uncomfortableness of the situation or what’s going on with that person.”
He said sometimes after someone has downloaded to him what is troubling or upsetting them, there’s a visible difference.
“People will say ‘I feel lighter!’ and will say their headache’s gone away,” he said. “But sometimes we can feel heavy after listening, but we have very good strategies for our own self-care – every eight weeks I see the pastoral co-ordinator at Liverpool Hospital.”
That co-ordinator basically listens to Ian, to allow him to download and discuss any issues he’s had.
He and his fellow pastoral practitioner Marcia Pitt operate all over the hospital, from the palliative area to maternity to emergency to the general wards.
He said their role can be very much appreciated in the palliative unit, as “there are a lot of taboos about dying in Australia,” he said.
“We talk to people who are dying about what meaning it has for them. It’s important for us to connect with the patient sooner rather than later.”
After a patient passes away, whether in palliative care or elsewhere, they make sure not to forget those left behind. “We send the next of kin a card saying we’re thinking of you,” he said. It also includes contacts if the person feels they would like to talk to someone.
“Then a month later we make a call, and ask how they’re going emotionally, physically, in their lifestyle, whether they’re coping. We determine if they need a referral to a counsellor at the hospital, if we feel they’re struggling – if they’re not getting out of bed or eating properly.”
He said the conversation allows them to tease out whether the person is going through the normal process of grief, or it is something beyond that. The hospital counsellors provide specialised grief and bereavement counselling, and it’s free and confidential.
The next of kin is also invited to the hospital’s next memorial day, which is held twice a year to remember those who have died in the previous six months. The event is spiritual but non-religious, to ensure inclusivity for all cultures and religions.
He said while he is highly trained, he can still be affected. “We’re human and there are things that will upset us. But your own life story helps you, and your spirituality.”