Rev. Ken Burg: Self-Care in Hospital Chaplaincy

Like many of the chaplains at Abbott Northwestern Hospital in Minneapolis, Reverend Ken Burg has a challenging job. As a staff chaplain on the hospital's Advanced Heart Failure Team, he has constantly interacted with patients who are undergoing major procedures, some of which don't go well. Rev. Burg described one instance where a patient recovering from open-heart surgery suddenly had a suture break and a code blue call rang out through the hospital. The heart surgeons at Abbott Northwestern quickly worked to try to save the patient's life but were too late; the patient had passed away immediately. After the attempt to save the patient's life, Rev. Burg recalled how a surgeon, one of his friends, stood outside the patient's room for ten minutes, cursing and utterly distraught. In moments like those, he said, "I [am] present, I encourage staff and I am there to listen."

The Advanced Heart Failure Unit, as its name suggests, often deals with high-stakes procedures where surgery can mean the difference between life and death. As we talked, Rev. Burg mentioned that there is a patient in the Minneapolis Heart Institute whose cardiologist is trying one final procedure to save his life, which, according to Rev. Burg, is unlikely to succeed. Such a stressful, demanding, and emotionally-charged environment can be especially exhausting. He described hospitals as a "bottomless pit of human need."

There must be some boundaries because we cannot give infinitely, we cannot solve all [the] problems. —Rev. Ken Burg

While he does all he can, Rev. Burg is acutely aware that, as a human, he cannot be as present for patients when he's exhausted. Therefore, he is mindful to avoid jumping into the "bottomless pit" and "monitors what [his] battery life is." In a hospital setting where patients are constantly coming in and out, Rev. Burg knows that he cannot address all of their needs and that to do so would lessen his capacity to care for and support others.

Rev. Burg mentioned that in a review, his supervisor, Rev. Dr. Verlyn Hemmen, reminded him of the importance of caring for himself in order to provide the best care for patients.

Verlyn [the Spiritual Care Director,] is big on self-care. In order to take good care of patients [we must first take good care of ourselves]. —Rev. Ken Burg

Rev. Shawn Mai, the Chaplain Manager and a member of the Clinical Pastoral Education faculty at United Hospital in St. Paul, echoed Rev. Burg's words.

As chaplains, we can only go as far to support someone as we've gone ourselves. So if I haven't done my grief work, I can't support people who grieve. —Rev. Shawn Mai

Even the most seasoned chaplains are affected by the challenge of the work that they do. Rev. Burg described a friend who served as a children's oncology chaplain at a nearby hospital. Rev. Burg described his colleague as a "pastoral Navy Seal," an individual who can provide compassionate support in the most challenging environments. "Even though he only works 4 days a week," said Burg, "by Wednesday afternoon, [he] starts to run out of gas" because his work is so taxing.

Though Rev. Burg's work is also challenging, he finds that the rewards match the challenge. His interactions with patients are not one-sided; often he feels that he is inspired by those around him. Rev. Burg described a 90-year-old patient who was nearing the end of her life. Her three daughters were flying in from around the country to be with their mother. One of the daughters had asked Rev. Burg to come by to say a prayer with them. As he entered the room, he found one of the woman's 50-year-old daughters in bed with her mother, holding her hand while she slept. Rev. Burg explained that in those moments he does not give as much as he receives.

So often I will go into a room where people are dying, but sometimes I feel encouraged by seeing love in action despite how hard the work is. —Rev. Ken Burg