Chaplains at Harrogate Hospital visit 15,000 patients every year, yet too often their role is overlooked. Reporter RUBY KITCHEN went to meet these ‘modest saints’ who offer a listening ear, a shoulder to cry on, and words of advice to those in need.
The tools of their trade are a beeper, a mobile phone and a treasured black notebook. Here they make a note of those they meet. Patients. Grieving families. Troubled staff.
Their job is to offer the kind of care that doctors and nurses can’t always provide - a listening ear.
“I always say I’m there to walk alongside people,” said the Rev Jim Grebby, chaplaincy team leader. “To support them, to care for them. That’s all we try to do.
“We’re not ministers, we’re not vicars, we’re not priests. We’re chaplains.
“Religion doesn’t matter to us. It’s of no relevance. A vicar has a parish. Our community here is our parish.
“We’re not here to preach. We are here as a constant ear.”
The chaplaincy team is a team of two-and-a-half. Jim, his colleague the Rev Tim Parker, and part-time Catholic priest Father Jim Leavy, from St Aelred’s.
Every day, 365 days a year, they walk the corridors of Harrogate Hospital, visiting patients, the chapel, staff, and families.
And what is staggering is the depth of their commitment. At all times, day or night, one of them must be within 30 minutes of Harrogate Hospital.
Jim and Tim take it in turns, seven days on and seven days off, to carry that beeper.
“Our lives revolve within 30 minutes of the hospital at all times,” said Jim. “That probably is the hardest part of the job.
“When that beeper goes off, we’ve got no idea why they are knocking.
“It could be a five-year-old boy, knocked down by his father’s tractor. It could be a mum, who’s given birth to a stillborn baby. All their hopes are gone.
“Or It could be a member of staff whose boyfriend’s proposed and they want to get married in the chapel.
“It may even be someone who’s come into hospital for the first time and they’re worried. But 90 per cent of our calls are to serious situations.”
The chaplaincy team host carol services, Christmas services, memorial services to stillborn babies. They advise the trust on end of life care, organ donation and grieving and loss.
And while much of the work they do is heart-breakingly sad, there are moments of real joy.
“It’s not all negative,” says Tim. “We have a lot of blessings, baby blessings, even marriages.
“We have parents who have lost three babies after IVF, then their fourth is born healthy. To be in that room, to be asked to baptise that baby, is quite something.”
The chaplaincy team is supported by more than 20 volunteers. Every week, they visit 150 departments. They see 15,000 patients every year, not counting the hospital staff they support.
“We’re extremely visible, we’re out there in the wards, in the corridors, in the boiler room,” said Jim. “We try to be in as many places as we possibly can.
“I often describe what we do as ‘crisis ministry’. We’re not part of the medical team, people can talk to us in confidence.
“We are as and when. Day and night, 365 days a year.”
Vera whitehead from Boston spa
Vera has seen firsthand the vital role these chaplains play.
When she lost her husband Tony in 2007, after half a lifetime years together, it was the Rev Jim Grebby who held her up.
“Tony and I were together for 43 years,” she said. “We did everything together, worked together, lunched together, lived together.
“I don’t think I could have got over the loss of him if it hadn’t been for Jim and his team. They were just like a family for me.”
Vera’s husband Tony had a stroke in 2007, and was admitted to Oakdale ward for 14 weeks.
“I came to see him every day,” said the retired specialist Leeds University librarian. “I got to know the staff, they always gave me a hug when I came.
“But there were a lot of people who don’t have anyone to visit them.”
For a short while, engineer Tony was strong enough to go home. But soon after, he had a ‘super-stroke’, which left him partially paralysed and affected his speech.
“He came into hospital on the Friday and on the Tuesday they called me to say he had hours to live. I just felt that everything was going wrong.
“Then, in that week, who should walk by but an absolutely wonderful and lovely guy, Jim Grebby, my saint.
“Jim walked by and stopped. He came straight in. After that, he came by every day to see Tony.”
Sadly, Tony died in the November. Jim oversaw the funeral, checking in on Vera over the following weeks.
“Two months later, at Christmas, what did I have but a heart attack,” said Vera. “They say it was down to the stress of losing Tony.
“And who should walk by but Jim. He took a back step and came to see me. There was nobody to run me home so he did it.
“He’s such a caring guy. He puts everybody else before himself. He knows how to listen, and help.
“The chaplaincy team are just a constant. It isn’t just about standing in front of people with a collar on. They listen. And they are sincere.”
Hospital worker Hilary Bland, therapy services administrative officer and Unison branch secretary
Hilary says the chaplaincy team has one of the most important roles in the hospital.
“I’ve just got such great respect and trust for all three of them,” she said. “They have such a wealth of knowledge and experience. And much of what they do isn’t patient care, it’s members of staff.
“Their dedication and the level of care they give is immeasurable. I sometimes go past the restaurant in the morning and see them there - they’ve been up all night. The support they give is absolutely amazing.”
Mrs Bland, in her role as Unison branch secretary, often refers staff to the chaplaincy team for support. She even married in the chapel four years ago.
“The chaplaincy service is just so important,” she said. “The fact that there is someone there who will listen.”