By Jessica Alyea
This piece originally appeared on the website of Clark Memorial Hospital. Republished with permission.
When the unthinkable happens and a family arrives at the emergency room, physicians and nurses cannot linger; they must move on to the next patient who needs help. When they must step away from a grieving family, Joe Bradley steps in.
“I may not say much, but I’m there,” says the chaplain, who has served at Clark Memorial Health for 13 years.
A large part of Joe’s role is helping patients and families process and try to make sense of a crisis.
People are searching for the meaning of a particular event when they are in crisis.
“I’ve come to believe that all people are spiritual, whether they’re religious or not,” he says. “Even somebody who’s an atheist, I think they still have this desire to find meaning and purpose in life. So people are searching for the meaning of a particular event when they are in crisis. That’s a big part of faith. That’s what makes us human.”
Joe has found inspiration from the biblical book of Job, in which Job cries out to God after his life is struck by tragedy.
“Everyone’s familiar with that first chapter where Job has a religious response to his suffering,” Joe says. “But basically the next 30 chapters are lament and complaint. As chaplains we are not here to give a positive spin on everything; we sit with people in their grief.”
Originally from Bloomington, Indiana (and still a big Indiana University fan), Joe previously worked in business for 20 years before feeling called to a career change in ministry. After working for a church, he realized the visitation part of a minister’s role was what he most enjoyed.
“A pandemic is a type of war. COVID-19 is the enemy. The medical team are the frontline warriors. I am here to support them.”
Today he serves not just patients and families, but also hospital staff members.
“The language of warfare is often employed in healthcare,” he says. “A pandemic is a type of war. COVID-19 is the enemy. The medical team are the frontline warriors. I am here to support them.”
One ritual Joe particularly enjoys in supporting staff members is a blessing of the hands, which he normally does twice a year. “It’s a highlight of the year for me because it really allows me to connect with staff,” he says. “I anoint their hands with olive oil and say a blessing like, ‘For all the work these hands do, may they be blessed and appreciated.’”
Unfortunately as the pandemic and safety concerns at the hospital heightened earlier this year, Joe was furloughed for a while. But, he says he chose to believe it happened for his and his family’s protection, and he took the opportunity to be creative.
“I decided to begin learning Spanish, and I took up playing the trumpet again after 40 years,” he says. “I am now part of the New Albany Community Orchestra.”
“We try to keep faith and move forward in hope rather than despair.”
COVID-19 has caused everyone loss in some way, Joe says, from a general loss of normalcy to the loss of a loved one. Grieving that loss is necessary to move toward healing, he adds.
“It’s OK to have a bad day, but we try to keep faith and move forward in hope rather than despair,” he says. “It’s definitely trying times, and each one of us has got to do that within our own minds. [Spiritual leaders] are charged with the responsibility to remind people of that.”
Now back to work since mid-August, Joe is again facilitating communication and helping people face difficult situations with grace, even talking to COVID-19 patients on the phone when it’s unsafe to meet in person. He is planning to bring back the hand blessing ritual in a safe way.
“These frontline workers need to be reminded that they are called to their work, and this ritual affirms that calling,” he says. “I am excited to be back at work for patients and families, but especially for the staff.”