Catholic chaplains fill the needs of patients, families

Kassidy Prestenbach, a mother of three, went into septic shock less than a year ago and almost died. Both legs below her knee were amputated, as were all fingers on her left hand and those above the knuckles of her right hand.

Standing before a crowd of pastoral care givers, including chaplains of all faiths, Oct. 19 at the Spiritual Care Luncheon at West Jefferson Medical Center in Marrero, Prestenbach, a registered nurse, said it was through their faith and spiritual care that she is alive today.

“I was thinking that recovery ended with my appendages being restored,” Prestenbach said. “If I didn’t have your support, I wouldn’t have heard God calling in my life.”

Prestenbach said she was able to see the devastation of losing her legs and hand as a positive blessing that turned her life and that of her husband and family to the Lord.

“You have to understand the important role you play in seeing patients when they are down, at their lowest point, and how it has affected mine,” she said.

When Prestenbach had nowhere else to turn, she said she found comfort in the Bible. Psalm 139, verses 7-8, told her she couldn’t hide from God.

“He is everywhere,” Prestenbach said. “He’s there to be our comforter, our best friend, and he loves us unconditionally.”
Mission of Catholic chaplains
Providing spiritual and emotional comfort to hospital patients and families of all denominations is what chaplains do daily, said Deacon Jeff Tully, coordinator of Healthcare Chaplaincy for the Archdiocese of New Orleans. Through the archdiocese’s pastoral ministry to the sick, he works with many priests, deacons, extraordinary ministers of holy Communion and chaplains of all denominations to meet the needs of patients, family and staff.

Deacon Tully answers daily calls from Catholics in hospitals who request a priest. He finds himself doing a lot of triage with hospital personnel to determine if the sacrament of the anointing of the sick is what families truly need or if it is a case of Catholics or non-Catholics who just need someone to talk to for comfort or companionship.

“As Catholics, we are there for anybody,” Deacon Tully said. “We are called by our baptism to minister to all people, and there are things we have to do to help others.”

Deacon Tully says requesting the sacrament of the sick is appropriate if a person is scheduled for an invasive procedure or near death.

“When someone is in a medical situation where they may undergo surgery, have an invasive procedure or are going downhill, they should be anointed by a priest,” Deacon Tully said. “There is absolutely no situation where, if an emergency situation arises, we cannot get a priest when we need to get one. As the bishops state, ‘there is no need to wait until a person is at the point of death to receive the sacrament.’”

Since only a priest can administer the sacrament of the anointing of the sick, it is recommended that Catholics call their parish priest for the sacrament before a scheduled procedure.

“But, there are no circumstances, whatsoever, where a priest couldn’t come in and anoint a patient in the hospital,” he said.

Archbishop Gregory Aymond, who has spoken at the annual Pastoral Care luncheon, created the healthcare chaplaincy position more than two years ago to provide appropriate pastoral care to the approximate 4,000 Catholics who could be either in the hospital or nursing home any day of the year throughout the Archdiocese of New Orleans.

“Archbishop Aymond asked how we could minister to these people,” Deacon Tully said. “Our goal is to bring holy Communion to patients in the hospital every day and to nursing homes once a week.”

In order to accomplish this goal, Deacon Tully knew more people had to be trained in addition to the priests and deacons already fulfilling chaplaincy needs. He tapped into those trained to be extraordinary ministers of holy Communion and established a 90-minute special training just for ministering in hospitals, nursing homes, hospice facilities and assisted living centers. This was over and above training by the Office of Worship.

Over the past 18 months, Deacon Tully said he’s conducted more than 30 of these training sessions, attended by more than 500 extraordinary ministers of holy Communion.
This additional training entails talking about basic customer service behaviors such as how to knock on the door of those receiving the pastoral care as well as talking about administering the Eucharist with dignity and respect, how to present themselves properly dressed and how to act like a pastoral care minister, not just someone who stops in to distribute Communion and quickly leave.

“They need to be able to engage in conversation with people, so we are teaching them to engage in prayerful conversations,” Deacon Tully said.

New hotline
He also created an emergency telephone line that hospitals and nursing homes can call to reach a priest for the sacrament of the anointing of the sick in emergency situations.

Another realm of the pastoral ministry that he handles is collecting plastic and rope-made rosaries to give to patients. In 2015, more than 10,000 rosaries were distributed by priests and deacons, chaplains and extraordinary ministers of holy Communion.

Being a liaison between chaplains, hospital personnel and pastors, the healthcare chaplaincy office provides support for staff and the employees of healthcare facilities. By the end of 2016, Deacon Tully, who has approximately 40 years’ experience in healthcare administration and several years working in pastoral care at Chateau de Notre Dame, plans to start a Catholic roundtable for healthcare workers to discuss the challenges they face with healthcare decisions that may be in conflict with their personal values and beliefs; and how to find balance with them.

Help to all
At the annual the Spiritual Care Luncheon at West Jefferson Medical Center held during national Spiritual/Pastoral Care week Oct. 16-22, hospital CEO Nancy Cassagne thanked the pastoral care workers for the great comfort they give to hospital patients.

“You care. You provide great comfort and give great care,” Cassagne said.

For details on the pastoral ministry to the sick, call Deacon Tully at 227-3606 or

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