Profiles in Nursing

Jan Meyers, Nurse Chaplain

Adding a spiritual component to nursing care

By Christine Contillo, RN, BSN
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Jan Meyers, RN, MA, may have left bedside nursing behind, but not the nursing skills she practiced early in her career. They continue to serve her well in her duties as a hospice chaplain. Her first hospital assignment after graduation was on a psychiatric unit where there were a number of religiously preoccupied patients. The head nurse there confronted their mental health issues head on by saying "There is no God on this floor."

It was not her place to argue with the treatment plan, but Meyers felt that even though the patients were psychotic, their evident anxiety could be helped with spiritual support. She prayed for their peace, even if she could only do so privately. After taking time off to raise her three children, Jan returned to nursing on the Women’s Unit at Holy Name Hospital in Teaneck, New Jersey, where she met with patients preparing for mammograms or diagnostic procedures.

The mission statement of the hospital encouraged spiritual care for the patients. As Meyers met with each for a few minutes before their procedures, the women would often share their emotional stories with her and she would try to comfort them by telling them that she would keep them in her prayers. Her unit director knew that Jan was studying at the graduate level in a pastoral care program and encouraged her to lead workshops on spirituality for the staff.

When a part-time hospice chaplain position opened up, Meyers was a natural fit and the role was offered to her. She’d continued her education by enrolling in a theological school that integrated psychology and spirituality, eventually obtaining an MA in counseling there. Now she’s board-eligible to become a Licensed Professional Counselor.

Her part-time position is often grueling, requiring her to be chaplain, bereavement counselor, and director of hospice volunteers in only twenty hours each week. JCAHO and Medicare requirements demand that hospice programs provide a spiritual component to their care, and Meyers fills that role, meeting with patients and families, holding memorial services, facilitating bereavement groups, and assigning volunteers to tasks such as limited respite care for family providers, light housekeeping, or even knitting lap blankets.

She recently worked with a young newly married man who had been diagnosed with aggressive cancer. She recognized that in order to find peace, he hoped to reach his first wedding anniversary. The date was approaching, and even as he became disoriented on heavier doses of pain medication, he continued to ask his wife what day it was. At Meyers’s suggestion the young woman defrosted the top layer of their wedding cake and bought champagne to hold an anniversary celebration. Three days after honoring their special day he died peacefully in his sleep.

Family members of the patient may call on her for up to a year and she conducts an annual memorial service to which they are all invited, helping to give the bereavement cycle closure. Jan admits that even with a team of two nurses and a social worker her job can be exhausting. The entire team grieves over the loss of each patient, especially young ones and those that have been unable to find peace despite their best efforts. She’s attended as many as three wakes in a single day.

With her warm smile and rapid-fire speech, Meyers is the first to tell you that she prays constantly for herself because it’s only with God’s help that she feels she can continue the work that she does. That she prays for everyone on the team and all her patients goes without saying.

Increasingly hospitals have begun to integrate an adaptive spiritual focus with physical medicine. Having a well-educated and enthusiastic nurse chaplain like Jan Meyers provides an advantage whose value is inestimable to both the patients and staff.

Christine Contillo, RN, BSN, has worked as a nurse since 1979. Christine has written extensively for various nursing publications as well as the New York Times.

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