As an ex-military captain who witnessed the horrors of the Bosnian War, Katie Watson, now a chaplain at one of the largest trusts in the UK, has seen humanity at its worst.
It was this experience that pulled her in the opposite direction – from war to a profession whose ultimate purpose is to bring people from all walks of life a sense of peace.
As part of Healthcare Chaplains Week this week (October 22-26) Unite, which embraces the College of Healthcare Chaplains (CHCC), highlights a fundamental but all-too often misunderstood role that’s a vital part of NHS services.
“No one day is the same,” CHCC member Katie, who works at Newcastle upon Tyne Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, tells UNITELive. “We’re always bouncing from one thing to another, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
As Katie’s 24-hour snapshot of her and her colleagues’ working day shows, not even one hour or minute is the same in a day in the life of an NHS chaplain.
“Most people will draw their understanding of what a chaplain does from the one experience they’ve had with them – but they don’t realise that in the hour before we were with them, we were overseeing a monthly foetal cremation service; the night before we accompanied relatives to an official police identification; tomorrow we’ll be supporting nursing staff who have just lost a colleague; at half four in the morning we’ll be sitting with a relative of a patient as the patient dies.
“People don’t realise that, for example, we run a clothing bank which can be drawn on by staff across the trust for their patients. We provide foodbank vouchers as well as referrals to charities such as StreetPaws and the Cinnamon Trust, which help patients and their families with pet care.
“I always say ‘for everything else – there’s the chaplain’.”
Another common misconception about chaplaincy, Katie explains, is that their jobs are all about religion.
“I am more often mistaken for a junior doctor,” she laughs.“We support people of all faiths and no faith. We place absolutely no expectations on anyone. We are what people need us to be. We come with compassion – we aren’t there to judge. We’re there to allow people space and comfort under extreme duress. That applies to patients, their visitors and staff all equally.
“I like to think of a hospital as embroidery – it’s beautiful in the front and then you turn it over you see all the work that’s gone into it. And I feel like we’re the one thread that runs through the whole service.”
Coming from a military background, Katie says that being part of a union was completely alien to her before joining the NHS as a chaplain.
“In the military we didn’t have a trade union so the whole concept was strange to me but they play an absolutely integral role in my working life. Being part of trade union allows me to fully focus on my job, to support people who are grieving, because I know the union can help me with all the practical things at work. With the union I know someone always has my back.”
Unite lead professional officer Jane Beach highlighted the importance of healthcare chaplains.
“Healthcare chaplains week organised by the College of Healthcare Chaplains (CHCC) that sits under the umbrella of Unite, is an opportunity to showcase and celebrate the work that our fantastic healthcare chaplains do,” she said. “They provide a vast range of invaluable support to patients, relatives and members of staff. We need to respect and value their professional contribution to the wider health team.”
Find out more about the College of Healthcare Chaplains here.