By Tracey Breashears Schultz, Bishop’s Associate for Leadership
There is plenty of suffering in the world, but it seems especially unfair when that suffering is endured by children. What must it be like to respond, day after day, to the struggles and illnesses of young people? What do you say to their families? What kind of person would you have to be, not just to do this ministry, but to come to think of it as a privilege rather than a burden? I had the honor of speaking with the Rev Kirstin Springmeyer about these very topics. She serves as Pediatric Palliative Care Chaplain at Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston.
“It all starts with putting on Christ.” This is the way Pastor Kirstin describes her morning routine. She begins by reminding herself of Colossians 3, “As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience…above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.” Much like you’d put on an outfit in preparing for the day ahead, Pastor Kirstin seeks the face of Jesus and to put him on. She is good at what she does because others can see what she wears: compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, and love.
As a chaplain, she encounters many people who have had a negative experience of the church or of followers of Jesus, and so they make assumptions about why she might be there or what she might want from them. She always surprises patients when she says, “You can’t kick out your doctors or your nurses, but you can kick me out! You won’t hurt my feelings.” She isn’t there to proselytize but to bring care and comfort. She is there to offer spiritual support in a trying time, and she lets the patients and their families decide when they are ready to receive what she has to offer.
Pastor Kirstin, a Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary graduate (MDiv 1993), is an ordained ELCA pastor. She has had four calls prior to this one, three parish calls and one in campus ministry at the University of Cincinnati. Her parish calls were in Knoxville and Chattanooga, Tennessee and in rural Indiana. She noticed toward the end of this latter call, then sixteen years into life in ministry, that she needed a change. She’d had a good experience completing her Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) requirements while in seminary, typically a three-month internship as a hospital chaplain, and she decided maybe the time was right for a tune up. She completed residential CPE at Cincinnati Children’s, and it turned out to be what she calls “the best year of my life” because “it transformed my ministry.” Encouraged by a supervisor and mentor, she applied for a chaplaincy position at Texas Children’s and spent her savings to fly to Houston for the interview. Come October, that was nine years ago.
Her first position at Texas Children’s was as a neonatal ICU chaplain. She was one of four chaplains in the spiritual care department. Her other responsibilities included on-call all over the hospital while on shift, responding to deaths, codes, accidents, and crises. After doing this work for five years, the hospital started the pediatric palliative care department. She recommended other colleagues who she felt would be great at the position. The palliative care assistant director accepted her recommendations, and then, one day, asked why she wasn’t considering herself for the position! She applied.
One of her hesitancies about applying was whether or not she had a good working definition of palliative care. She does now, and she shared it with me, “Palliative care is an approach that improves the quality of life of patients and their families facing problems associated with life-threatening illness, through the prevention and relief of suffering by the treatment of pain and other problems, physical, psychosocial, spiritual.” The difference between being a chaplain this way and the way she was before is palliative care is an inter-disciplinary field. This means she is always working as part of a team. A patient doesn’t just have doctors, nurses, residents, and fellows on their side. They also have a social worker, a psychiatrist, pharmacists, translators, pet therapy, and a chaplain. Their team cares for the whole person and family. Because these specialists all work together for the good of their patients, they respect and treat each other as equals.
Pastor Kirstin described some of their current cases, ranging from children with chromosomal disorders, cystic fibrosis, asthma, sickle cell, organ transplants, and limited cognitive function, to name a few. She said their census is up, not because of coronavirus, but because more doctors understand palliative care and are referring more often. That list of pain and suffering might seem overwhelming to any one of us, but Pastor Kirstin sees her calling as improving quality of life and preventing and relieving suffering. She trusts that God is with her in this “deeply fulfilling vocation.”
One activity she does with families is called “The Path.” She has parent(s) and patient choose from twelve printed images of paths, some through forests, some at the beach, some in the desert. Then, she asks them about their journey using the photo as a guide. Where do you see yourself on the path? Where is God? Their answers lead to openness and honesty and allow her to know them and then respond better to their needs. Over time, she builds rapport by asking questions: Is faith or religion important to you? What gives you strength? What is it like to be in the hospital? Who supports you? As trust is deepened, they learn she is not there to judge but to help, to be a friend.
You might imagine that Pastor Kirstin meets people from many faith traditions or none at all. About this she says, “It is very enlightening.” She recalled a memory of when an upper-elementary age patient was nearing death. His parents came to her and said they regretted that he’d wanted to be baptized, and they had not done that for him, nor had they themselves been baptized. Pastor Kirstin said, “Well, we can do something about that!” She organized a baptismal service for the patient and his parents. As they observed that ritual, it was not lost on her that the one holding the baptismal bowl, a fellow (a new doctor), was Muslim. The scriptures were read by a person of no faith as well as a Jew and an Episcopalian. She presided over the liturgy as a Lutheran. With joy, she described this beautiful event, where many had come together, clothing themselves with love.
The pandemic has changed hospital protocols and procedures, and she has responded as she ordinarily does—by living out Colossians 3. Pastor Kirstin receives a temperature check and a hospital-issued mask and wrist band each day. She no longer takes the shuttle to work (as it is crowded), so she allows time to walk the long distance from the parking lot to the hospital. Although she is still part of an amazing and rather close team, their interactions are mostly by Zoom these days. (The day I interviewed her, the hospital was recognizing staff with July birthdays, but they were figuring out how to enjoy birthday cake while physically distanced.) There are few visitors allowed at the hospital, except in the case of impending death, and she misses the volunteers she would see in the food court and gift shop. She feels for families who have to limit their exposure to their children, and she sees her work in these days as all that much more important.
This summer, Pastor Kirstin will graduate with a Masters of Science in Palliative Care. For the last two years, she has been engaged in online coursework through the College of Pharmacy at the University of Maryland-Baltimore. She has achieved a 4.0 and is now considering a PhD in this field.
There is plenty of suffering in the world, but thanks be to God, there are those, like Pastor Kirstin, who are called to respond with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, and love. You’ll know when you’ve been in their presence because they’ve put on Christ, and they’ll inspire you to do the same.