Health care for the soul: Chaplain lending an ear

It’s Friday at Whidbey General Hospital and Dave Engle is making his rounds.

It’s Friday at Whidbey General Hospital and Dave Engle is making his rounds.

He heads into the gift shop to say, “hello,” swings by waiting areas and then heads down the hall to chat with nurses about any patients who might need his services.

In his crisp dress shirt and slacks, he might be mistaken for a seasoned medical professional, but he’s more concerned with soul than body.

Engle is one of seven chaplains who volunteer at the hospital. Although Whidbey General is secular, the chaplains’ function is vital in a place when people can often feel powerless and alone, said Nancy Bailey, manager of volunteer services.

“It can be a scary time,” Bailey said. “Not everyone has someone to visit or sit with them.”

“They could use a sympathetic, unbiased ear.”

The hospital established a chaplain program in 1970. Many who serve in the role are retired clergy, but not all. They take shifts, making themselves available seven days a week to anyone at the hospital who needs prayer, a listening ear or a bit of silent comfort.

The hospital is secular and funded by public money. Instead of a chapel, for instance, visitors can take a moment in a quiet room off the lobby reinforced with extra soundproofing material and outfitted with windows to an outside landscaped area.

The chaplains’ role isn’t to convert or press their faith on anyone, Bailey said. Instead, they should meet people wherever they are.

“They’re not imposing their own personal beliefs,” Bailey said. “They have to respect other people’s decisions about religion or lack thereof. They have to offer the comfort of a spiritually caring person.”

By all accounts, Engle embodies that role. He’s warm, gentle and kind — a human glow warm with a wide smile. After volunteering in a hospital many years, he’s learned who needs him to sit and listen and when it’s best to leave people alone.

He gravitates toward people who seem the most alone.

At 78, he didn’t become a pastor until he was nearly 40 years old, after a career as a school teacher. He grew up on a dairy farm in Coupeville not far from the hospital. After a time in California, he returned with his family to the area and served as pastor at Living Hope Foursquare Church until he said God told him to take a secondary role. He’s still active with the church.

He has volunteered at Whidbey General since 1993. He views his ministry as serving anyone who needs him at the hospital — and not just patients. He’s there for the woman waiting fearfully for her husband to come out of surgery or for the nurse who has seen too much trauma for one day.

He wears a shirt and a tie because he said he wants to give everyone his best. But he also wants everyone to be comfortable, so he favors Disney character ties or Snoopy.

“I feel a real need for pastors to be available,” he said. “You get every kind of emotion here. If you can give a smile that’s what it’s all about.”

Whidbey General could use a few more chaplains, Bailey said. Those who are qualified and interested should contact her at 360-678-7656, ext. 3246.

At the moment, Whidbey General chaplain volunteers are all from Christian denominations, but the hospital would welcome other faiths, Bailey said.

Chaplains typically have a bachelor’s degree and theology training and at least one year pastoral experience, she said. They must be able to commit to visiting the hospital on a regular schedule.