‘The need for support never goes away’

Spiritual Care team at Unity Health Toronto provides round-the-clock support for patients and their families

By Anna Wassermann

Virginia MacDonald, a Spiritual Care practitioner 

Oct. 16, 2019 – Coping with the news of a serious diagnosis and the subsequent impact of treatments can be both physically and mentally exhausting. While medical professionals at Unity Health Toronto work on restoring patients’ physical health, a specialized team is dedicated to improving patients’ spiritual and mental well-being.

The Spiritual Care team across Unity Health provides emotional and cultural support and spiritual counselling to patients and their families. Comprised of Spiritual Care practitioners who have completed specialized training under the auspices of the Canadian Association of Spiritual Care, the team is available to provide 24-hour support, 365 days a year.

Virginia MacDonald, a full-time Spiritual Care practitioner at our St. Michael’s Hospital site, says these supports were historically rooted in religion. Today, the goal of the Spiritual Care team is to find out what spiritual care means for the patient and their family, and to tailor supports accordingly.

“When someone receives a diagnosis, it can be hard for them to deal with the loss of control of their situation,” said MacDonald. “Our focus is showing up for the patient and not just tapping them on the head and saying, ‘Oh dear, dear, it’s going to be OK,’ because maybe in that moment, it’s just not.”

Like everyone on the team, MacDonald has a unique set of skills that inform her work at St. Michael’s. After recovering from a major medical episode, a mid-life re-evaluation prompted her to head back to school to professionalize on years of volunteer experience supporting people living with chronic illness and in end-of-life care.

After earning a master’s of arts in theology and completing a 12-month residency in clinical pastoral  education at University Health Network, MacDonald joined the team at St. Michael’s in January. She says that while some of the work is familiar, the context of working with others in a fast-paced, critical care environment and being able to draw on her experience as a patient is new and exciting.

“Working on a team in a place where medical needs are being met is a very deepening experience,” said MacDonald. “And after my own experience in the hospital, I understand even more what it’s like to be that person in the bed and to wonder, ‘How is my life going to be different?’”

MacDonald and the rest of the Spiritual Care team spend their days tending to patients in any one of the hospital’s inpatient units. They respond to referrals from health care providers across the hospital, check-in on patients in the intensive care units and respond to all emergency codes.

“It’s all up to the patients and their families how they want to direct the conversation,” said MacDonald. “I have no agenda, I make no judgments. I just try to tend to people as best as I can, to help them discover, within themselves, what they need.”

Bill Ford, manager of Spiritual Care at St. Michael’s and St. Joseph’s Health Centre, says that this emphasis on individualized, spiritual, emotional and cultural support allows everyone to benefit from spiritual care.

There are a number of myths that people have about spiritual care:

  • Spiritual care is only for people who are religious
  • that they only provide support to people who identify with a Christian faith
  • that spiritual care is only for people at the end of life

Ford says these are myths that the Spiritual Care department has been working to debunk.

“We’re trying to show people that spiritual care is not just about religious care. It’s about cultural and emotional care too,” said Ford.

The Spiritual Care team is also very diverse culturally and is able to provide care in more than a dozen languages. The team also has connections with various religious leaders and elders for patients and families who request religious or Indigenous support.

Between the diversity of care and the value placed on 24-hour on-site care, MacDonald says she feels that the hospital sets itself apart from other institutions.

“Unity Health understands that the need for support is universal, and it never goes away,” she said. “I’m proud to work for an institution that makes spiritual care a priority.”