Northern Ireland

Healing the heart: The busy lives of Belfast's hospital chaplains

The Reverend Norman Harrison
Image caption The Reverend Norman Harrison's support as a chaplain is "lifting at a time of trauma", one patient says

Sitting in the quiet of the chapel at Belfast's Royal Victoria Hospital, Presbyterian chaplain the Reverend Norman Harrison takes a moment to review his lists of visits for the day ahead.

There are at least 70 names on it - 15 people have been admitted overnight - meaning he's going to be busy.

Before he can begin, the chaplain's phone rings, alerting him to another patient who may need his attention.

Making his way through the busy corridors to a side ward, his first visit is with Tom Carson, who is recovering after a serious eye operation.

The pair have built up a rapport over the past days that becomes obvious as they chat about Mr Carson's return home, before taking a few moments to say a prayer together.

Mr Carson, a retired features editor at the Belfast Telegraph, has been well cared for by his family, but says the extra support he received from the chaplain was especially welcome at a time when he felt vulnerable.

"A kindness, a goodness and a feeling of fellowship - these things are so important when you are in a critical situation in hospital," he says.

"The things that you hold dear are important and if you find someone who shares that background in faith it can be heartening and lifting at a time of trauma like this."

Image caption The Reverend Derek Johnston says chaplains provide "that extra element of care" that hospital patients require

Mr Harrison is just one of a team of about 40 chaplains in the Belfast Health and Social Care Trust, about 20 of whom are volunteers.

Apart from the five main churches, Baptists and Pentecostals, there are representatives from the Hindu, Jewish and Muslim faiths as well as a humanist volunteer.

Five full-time chaplains split most of their time between the two acute hospitals, the Royal Victoria Hospital and the Mater Hospital.

'Not a minority'

The Reverend Derek Johnston is the lead chaplain at the Royal and he says their services are in demand even in an increasingly secular age.

"On average, statistically in the Belfast Trust about 60% of patients request a visit from a chaplain, so it is not a minority service," he says.

"We can show that chaplains do about 1,500 patient visits per week, and of those about 500 are done by volunteers."

Based in a small office set off off from the bustle of the Royal's main foyer, Mr Johnston explains what he sees as the role of the chaplain.

In a world of stretched resources, with too many patients and too few healthcare workers, they can give the patient time.

He says that as well as providing pastoral services they are able to view the patient as a whole person.

Image caption Numerous faiths are represented by the chaplains in the Belfast Health and Social Care Trust

"Whether their leg is broken or their head is hurting, their inner values can come to the fore," he says.

"While their physical needs can be treated, they also need someone to say: 'Hello, how are you and how are you coping? How are you getting through this and can we help you while you are here?'

"So we have a role in providing that extra element of care - medical, social and psychological care is needed, but the religious and spiritual side is vital in treating the person."

'Lots of joys'

In the Belfast Health Trust's acute hospitals, there are chaplains on call 24 hours a day and seven days a week.

They soon come to learn that the late night calls can be the saddest as they often deal with trauma and tragedy, someone who has died or is dying.

In spite of the intense nature of the work, Catholic chaplain Father Robert Sloan says it is a privilege.

"There are a lot of sad moments, but there are a lot of joys, particularly when someone recovers," he says.

"To see them leave the hospital after coming into intensive care is great.

"Sometimes when you hear the radio and there's been an accident overnight you think: 'Will I meet that person today?'

"But you just take each day as it comes."