Volunteer chaplain prays for, with dying patients, families

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MURRAY, Utah (AP) — When Tiffany Berg gets a phone call in the middle of the night, it's often to help someone say goodbye.

She hurries to the hospital and holds a patient's hand. She prays with a family. She listens to their grieving thoughts.

As a chaplain, there are some celebratory moments, but for the most part, Berg helps people spiritually prepare for death.

"I'm enjoying life. I enjoy people. I enjoy receiving love and giving love. That's a marvelous thing," James Leach, an 84-year-old cancer patient at Intermountain Medical Center, told Berg as they visited in his hospital room, according to the Deseret News (http://bit.ly/1caxt4T). "But I am getting closer to the time when God will call me home."

Leach, who answers to "Pastor Jim," served as a Methodist minister in Florida for most of his life, administering to his own congregations.

Even through the intense pain of the late stages of multiple myeloma (bone cancer), he said he "rejoices in everything."

"As I open my heart, I realize I am going through some of the most joyous times in my life," Leach said. He has fought cancer for 10 years and knows he may not have the "privilege" to see his granddaughter married this August.

Berg prayed for Leach to have the time he needs, but also to relish the time he has, even as he struggles with disease.

"There's not time. There's not time to hold on to anger," she said, adding that it is the most common counsel she gives as a volunteer chaplain at Intermountain Medical Center.

Before obtaining official certification as a chaplain in 2011, Berg, 49, was faced with intense grief herself. Her husband and the father of their five children, Paul Berg, had been diagnosed with terminal cancer, and at one point was given three to 24 months to live. He died in 2009.

A hospice chaplain visited the Berg home "to facilitate those difficult conversations," she said, about what he wanted his children to know, preferences regarding a memorial service and, ultimately, saying goodbye to his family.

A Bible verse Berg holds dear states, "Beauty for ashes . joy for mourning."

"Where there were ashes, there's beauty now," she said. "My life feels so sweet now, I couldn't have seen this six years ago."

The closeness to God, and the opportunity to help people through their "traumatic journeys of loss," Berg said, have helped her heal, but have also given her a new perspective on life — so many patients and families tell her they thought they had more time.

"This is all you have, and it can change at any moment," she said. "You can't afford to live thinking you have more time."

The Murray hospital is home to 250 volunteers, each giving of their time on a weekly basis, up to 35,000 hours last year. Berg, who visits the hospital to pray with and for patients about three times a week, is one of 16 spiritual care volunteers who work under the hospital's part-time, paid chaplain.

"A hospital isn't a place where people are always excited to go," she said. "It usually means there's been some sort of trauma."

Berg, of Lehi, said it's important to her that the patient is able to feel her touch and hear her words of prayer. Often she lends a listening ear to surviving family members and she holds many experiences near to her heart, as the position of chaplain is one of spiritual care.

"It's very specialized," said Peggi Blackman, coordinator for specialized care programs at Intermountain Medical Center. "It takes the right personality."

She said volunteers endure the same screening protocol, including background checks, as other employees, and to work in the spiritual care program, volunteers must submit a spiritual biography and letters of reference from clergy.

Blackman said they are each "very committed."

"It's amazing how many lonely people there are in a hospital," she said, adding that Intermountain's trauma hospital accepts patients from all over, even out-of-town visitors to Utah and those who travel long distances and are away from family and friends.

The fairly new spiritual care program has grown at the hospital as patients and the community become more comfortable with asking for help in times of need.

"You just know when you've touched someone's life . by the way they embrace you and sometimes cry," Blackman said. "A lot of our patients' families have told us they are very grateful for the service we provide."

Berg — formerly Mrs. Utah 2007 and a motivational speaker who has a full-time job as a hospice chaplain — said, "It's always a powerful experience."

She's performed a wedding at the bedside of a laboring woman, has been able to sense a patient's imminent death and hushed his physician's concerns, has prayed in French with a dying woman who didn't speak English, assuaged the guilt of an injured woman's caregiving daughter, and has helped dozens of families at the edge of final goodbyes.

"We're not sure where the soul goes in those moments," Berg said. "We know we're far more than just physical beings. You realize there is this power that is bigger than you."


Information from: Deseret News, http://www.deseretnews.com

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