Mountain Climbers

by Chaplain Resident, Brigette Kemink

Last September a group of four entered the buildings of Michigan Medicine with the desire to bring comfort, care, companionship, and peace to the patients, families, caregivers, and staff. Now, they have only a few days left of their journey as Chaplain Residents of Michigan Medicine’s CPE (Clinical Pastoral Education) Program led by Rev. Tony Marshall, Certified CPE Educator. These individuals came with the hope that their presence would offer a sense of calm and security. Not only would these four be doing the practical work of supporting patients, families, caregivers, and staff, they would engage in an intensive study program aimed at further developing their personal theology, gain a deeper understanding of human behavior, refine skills to provide care to those with or without a religious tradition, grow their spiritual counseling, and explore new ways of offering care. All of this is done to prepare these individuals to become Board Certified Chaplains, experts in their field, and an honor that comes at the approval of their peers. In any given year, this is a daunting and intensive process, but as we know, this was no ordinary year at Michigan Medicine or in the world.

Father Joshua Genig, Reverend Brigette Kemink, Reverend Brooke Pickrell, and Rabbi Benyamin Vineburg started this journey knowing it would be intense, but could have never predicted the upheaval of COVID-19. While other programs were shutting down and sending residents on hiatus, delaying their ability to complete requirements for the certification process,  the Department of Spiritual Care at Michigan Medicine, led by Rev. Christina Wright, PhD, took this opportunity to encourage the residents to engage with patients in new and different ways. 

Living and working through a pandemic isn’t usually found on a bucket list, but neither is cancer, heart attacks, strokes, autoimmune diseases, car accidents…the list can go on. 

A once bustling hospital of families, friends, and caregivers went nearly silent with only a few people coming and going with strict visitor policies in place. Programs designed to ease the stress and anxiety of being hospitalized were halted. Those in the dying process were unable to have their community around them and this pain was felt not only by the patients and family members, but the staff as well. 

Noone wants to experience death this way. 

People needed care more than ever. 

In person visits were replaced with telephone calls to patients, sisters, brothers, moms, dads, daughters, sons, grandparents, aunts, uncles, spouses, and partners. Questions about God, the Divine, or a Higher Being, became more prevalent. The occasional, but not unexpected question of “Why did this happen to me?” became commonplace, begging to be answered. So, in their way, in their collective understanding of all people being deserving of love, compassion, care, and support, the residents explored new ways of offering care. 

They coordinated family meetings via zoom

They created this website to offer a source of support when being in person is difficult

They advocated for families

They partnered with social workers, music therapists, and physicians to deliver care

They bared their souls through blog posts, videos, and interviews

They became witnesses to the racial disparity of COVID-19

They used their experience to inspire research

They found ways to offer support to staff as they navigated significant changes and challenges

They grew, they learned, and they cared.

And now they move on with a new perspective, new skills, and facing a future with a new confidence having climbed mountains they never saw on their path. 

Certainly, this is how life goes. 

One minute we are walking quietly along with our companions and then we encounter an obstacle. The obstacle does not matter. What matters is how we respond. There will always be days, moments, and times when we don’t want to deal with the obstacle. There will be moments when we’d rather turn around and go back to walking the quiet way. There will be days when we sit down at the face of this new path and feel overwhelmed, burdened, and defeated, but again, this is how life goes. There are no promises of a carefree, joyous filled, obstacle free life.

But in these difficult, trying, and stressful moments, these residents picked up their compass, their faith in God, and kept going. They drew on the strength of others to help them climb mountains, making sure there are people all around to help them. They tightened their rope. They checked their gear and made sure the connections were secure. Then, they stepped out in faith. They were never quite sure where their foot will land, but one thing they knew for sure was that God was with them each step of the way, leading them, climbing with them, and creating a path. Whomever they encounter on this climb is part of the divine process and this trust, this faith, is what encourages them to keep moving on, reaching up, settling in, and taking deep breaths to be in painful, gut-wrenching experiences, to celebrate joyous moments, and offer the companionship of a person of faith.

Thank you residents. Thank you, Joshua, Brigette, Brooke & Benyamin. You have laid the foundation for good work to continue. You have made an impact in places that you don’t even realize and your experiences at Michigan Medicine will never leave you. Michigan Medicine will forever be changed because of your good work and so will you. 

Well done, good and faithful servant.

Rabbi Benyamin Vineburg, Reverend Brooke Pickrell, Reverend Tony Marshall, Father Joshua Genig, Reverend Brigette Kemink – gathered together for a final picture during the COVID-19 pandemic

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