A New Normal

Not all hospital stays are short and not all conditions can be cured. Rev. Denise Dunbar-Perkins, retired staff chaplain at Abbott Northwestern Hospital in Minneapolis, noted that, "People that have long term chronic illnesses live in a state of a different normalcy than we do." Those individuals are not faced with a temporary loss of control but must learn how to live the rest of their lives differently.

Many people, especially after you have a colon cancer or some other, sometimes Crohn's disease, diseases that interfere with your large intestine, your bowels . . . And you may have to have something where all of your waste material comes through this bag that's put on the side of you and you have to manage that every day . . . I've heard people being told, 'Well you oughtta be glad, this colostomy saved your life. Now that you have this, you don't have to worry about this.' But what about the woman who says, 'Oh my God, when I'm sitting in church, can people smell me?' We're talking about the most basic parts of the human body, the functions. So yeah, you feel marginalized because your life, the normal that you had, is gone.
—Rev. Denise Dunbar-Perkins

Rev. Dunbar-Perkins discussed how patients with chronic illnesses develop a new normal.

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Many people, especially after you have a colon cancer or some other, sometimes Crohn's disease, diseases that interfere with your large intestine, your bowels. This is a hospital, this is how we talk. And you may have to have something where all of your waste material comes through this bag that's put on the side of you and you have to manage that every day. You can't do it how everybody else, you got to, that's got to be physically worked with. I've heard people being told, 'Well you oughtta be glad, this colostomy saved your life. Now that you have this, you don't have to worry about this.' But what about the woman who says, 'Oh my God, when I'm sitting in church, can people smell me?' We're talking about the most basic parts of the human body, the functions. So yeah, you feel marginalized because your life, the normal that you had, is gone.

Due to her experiences with discrimination as a Black woman, Rev. Dunbar-Perkins can connect to patients whose lives are drastically altered by medical treatments. She is able to use her own experiences with marginalization to understand, comfort, and connect with patients whose lives will never be the same.

So, I can be in a room with a woman whose family has 100 million dollars and everybody's always kowtowed to her and who's had a good life. But my experience of being told I couldn't have this, I couldn't drink out of a water fountain when I'm nine years old without getting chased down the street by a policeman, which is a real experience. I can come into this room, to this woman who's had everything in her life and now she's been told, 'Now you can only eat soup, period.' We connect.
—Rev. Denise Dunbar-Perkins

Prayer Rug

A prayer rug in Rev. Dunbar-Perkins’ office. Such objects can provide comfort and a sense of normalcy to patients struggling with profound transormations in their life as they know it, such as with chronic illnesses.

While Rev. Dunbar-Perkins can connect with patients through a sense of shared marginalization, she also provides them with an avenue to discuss and process their grief as part of her role as chaplain. She "serves as a listening ear for spiritual pain" to help patients cope even in the most dire situations. While helping patients process their grief is critical, Rev. Dunbar-Perkins can also provide religious patients with materials, or arrange for services that can make a patient's stay in the hospital more "normal." She described how religious rituals or objects, such as prayer rugs provided by the hospital and prayer shawls that lie on a chair in her office, can help provide control and familiarity for patients who may have lost their "normal" life.

If I find out that somebody wants to do certain things that make them feel better, if they're Native American [for instance], they may want to do smudging, we have a policy here at Abbott Northwestern . . . about providing space for that. Muslim patients who may not really want to talk about everything or have a conversation, offer them a prayer rug and they’ve got a little bit of normal for them that gets them through this time.
—Rev. Denise Dunbar-Perkins