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For Hospital Chaplains, Delicate Work After Marathon Bombings

BOSTON — Hospital chaplains are playing a crucial and delicate role in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings. They’re providing a listening ear and, if requested, a prayer for the wounded and their families. But they’re also tending to hospital staff who witnessed gruesome injuries and suffering last week. At one Boston hospital, chaplains are preparing to help doctors, nurses and patients process another difficult reality: that not only have many bombing victims been treated at the hospital, but so have the two bombing suspects.

The Rev. Julia Dunbar is director of pastoral care at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, and WBUR’s All Things Considered host Sacha Pfeiffer visited Dunbar Tuesday at her office near the hospital’s chapel. Dunbar began by describing what kind of conversations she’s been having with patients.

The Rev. Julia Dunbar, director of pastoral care at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (Lynn Jolicoeur/WBUR)

The Rev. Julia Dunbar, director of pastoral care at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (Lynn Jolicoeur/WBUR)

Rev. Julia Dunbar: Conversations have actually been largely about gratitude, sort of with this grace and this grit that we see and we respond to. Gratitude that the loved one was alive, if that was the case. I mean, everyone is different. But some, it’s, “We’re going to get through this.” And the whole concept that’s come out of that of Boston Strong. But there’s a whole other level of heartbroken, life-changing, “Where do we go from here?” I think the patients and the families, from what I’ve been able to ascertain, feel incredibly supported here and throughout the community, and throughout their own cities and towns. It’s really quite remarkable.

Sacha Pfeiffer: What about hospital personnel? This has been a harrowing and grueling week for them physically and emotionally. How have you helped them?

One of the most moving groups of people I went to meet with was going over to see the members of our environmental services team, who are the people who clean the emergency department and were there during 9 — I was going to say 9/11 — during the whole situation where patients were being received. And those people are the ones who saw things that were re-traumatizing in some cases and were having to continue to work, continuing to clean. And you can imagine what that was like.

So by the nature of their job, they must sometimes see difficult things or the aftermath of difficult things. But this was another level?

This was volumes beyond three or four or five casualties, or people who’d been wounded in some way.

How did it affect them? What have they said to you about that?

Some started talking about previous trauma that they hadn’t actually identified as trauma, but they were revisiting old traumatic wounds. Some talked about just incredibly strong faith and that that was their complete focus, was, “God’s going to get us through, God’s been with me.” Another person seemed a little bit more — I don’t know if dazed is a proper word to use. But he just was talking about actually what he had seen and what he did. Repeatedly what he did in cleaning — mopping and cleaning, mopping and cleaning — in a way that was jarring to picture. And when I probed further, just to find out sort of how he was feeling or what else he might want to share, he said, “Bottom line is, it’s got to be clean for the next patient,” which I found really moving and powerful, that his focus was really, “Got to take care of the next patient.”

What about the trauma doctors? Because their jobs mean they have to see a lot of trauma and gore and very difficult-to-see, difficult-to-look-at injuries. But for them, did this even feel like it challenged all their training?

Yes. I would say, in my conversations and in various meetings I’ve been in, they were challenged as anyone would be. I mean, it was not just another day in the park. It wasn’t two patients that they could focus all their attention on. I think that the processing happens after things start to calm down. And a lot of it probably happens with other colleagues who are in the same situation, with their close friends and their own communities. They may not necessarily bring as much to us here, although some have. But I’d say, for the most part, doctors are processing things in a very different way. They’re less emotive, perhaps we can say.

What has the impact been on the hospital of having marathon bombing patients here and then, at the end of the week, the two marathon bombing suspects, one of whom died here and one of whom remains here?

It’s shocking and overwhelming. And so whatever sense there was — I remember on Wednesday feeling like, OK, we can start to focus on how we’re moving forward. And then to have the suspect No. 1 and suspect No. 2 come — I was pretty stunned. And my immediate thought was, “How is this affecting staff who have been treating the marathon patients and families?” And then I’ve been thinking so much about the families. How is this for them? But I don’t have an answer. I know only that they are getting incredible care and attention in every possible way.

How do you feel like you’re doing after this week-plus?

It’s so hard to answer that question, you know? It’s like, I’ve been asking people, “How are you?” and people are asking me, “How are you?” And how do you answer that? When do we cry? It hasn’t really fully hit me yet. Sometimes things like this hit you when you are doing the most unexpected thing — when you’re carrying your groceries in and suddenly the bag breaks and the oranges spill all over the floor and you sit down and cry. You know?

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