Helping patients find God in a health crisis

BRIDGEPORT—The seed of Tim Bolton’s vocation was planted shortly after his daughter Kaitlin was born with a chromosomal abnormality in 1993. “My youngest daughter taught me,” he says.

At the time, he and his wife Mary Ellen were members of St. James Church in Stratford, where they were embraced by the faith community, who brought them meals, prayed rosaries and held a benefit for them when the insurance company refused to pay for Kaitlin’s final surgery.

“It was an unbelievable gathering of people, prayer, love and faith,” he recalls. “I really saw what a Christian community is like. My vocation to the permanent diaconate was born that day and evolved over the next ten years. And Fr. Tom Lynch cultivated that call.”

Today, Deacon Tim Bolton, who left his family business after the Recession, extends that same compassion, care, prayer and presence to others in his assignment at Hartford HealthCare, St. Vincent’s Medical Center, where he is Manager of the Pastoral Care Department.

“A hospital is a container for everything from the beginning of life to the end of life and everything in between that is imaginable or unimaginable,” he says. “It is an amazing environment to be part of and see people offering themselves in the service of others. As a chaplain, you get to observe everything through the lens of faith. We see more than other clinical disciplines do because we participate across the spectrum. We see patients receiving a diagnosis, going through treatments, at the start of life and at the end of life with prayers of commendation at their bedside.”

Very often, he says, family members see themselves at the foot of the cross, like the Blessed Mother and St. John, with no power to influence the outcome. They are present to their loved one and recognize, some for the first time, the possibility of the Resurrection.

“We have this opportunity to be with families and frame for them through the lens of faith their part in the Passion and see their loved one as a unique reflection of the image of Christ, a reflection of the image the world has never seen before,” he said.

When Deacon Bolton was ordained in 2006, he was originally assigned to St. James Church but was later given permission to do his ministry full-time at St. Vincent’s, where he began working in 2011.

The challenges his family has confronted helped him understand God’s plan and recognize the needs of others facing a medical crisis.

“It is really the grace of God,” he said. “We have lived through a lot and also experienced great love, unlike any family has ever experienced from the community.”

Mary Ellen, who is principal at Jane Ryan School in Trumbull, has gone through three bouts of cancer over the past 20 years.

“I saw the need for people to have someone to talk to while she was in the hospital,” he recalled. “And I learned about the clinical surrounding when Kaitlin went for treatment….I know what it is like in the newborn intensive care when a doctor says to a family, ‘We need to do an MRI on the baby’s brain lesions.’ I know what it is like, and I can be in that place with them.”

Deacon Bolton calls himself “a trench guy” and says a fundamental part of his ministry is to accompany people. “I identify with the mystery of accompaniment and presence to help people feel comfortable and meet them where they are, while trying to have a healthy humility,” he said.

He tells the story of a woman dying of cancer, who asked if she and her husband could renew their wedding vows. Several months before she passed away, they were joined by their family members and friends at the vineyard where she worked. In the barn, with her gown on, she and husband renewed their vows. Deacon Bolton later went to her home, where she was receiving Hospice care, and did the prayers of commendation while her family and friends were present.

“I really feel privileged to do the work I do,” he said, “It is a privilege to accompany people at moments in their lives when they let you in. In those encounters, you can let them know they are not alone.”

Deacon Bolton manages the Pastoral Care Department at St. Vincent’s under the direction of Bill Hoey, Vice President of Mission.

“Pastoral care has been an integral part of how we provide care at St. Vincent’s since we were founded by the Daughters of Charity, and we have been blessed with some of the most gifted chaplains imaginable,” Hoey said.

There are lay and priest chaplains. The priests celebrate Mass, administer the Sacrament of the Sick, hear confessions and sometimes do a crisis baptism. They provide spiritual support to all patients, even those who are not Catholic, Hoey said.

“They are not just here to bring the Eucharist to a Catholic patient,” he said. “They provide a full array of chaplain services and will offer support to a Jehovah Witness or a Muslim or a member of the Jewish faith, or even a person of no faith.”

The department has full- and part-time chaplains, along with volunteer pastoral care assistants and extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion. The chaplains include priests, deacons, rabbis and representatives of different faiths.

“We talk about reverent holistic care, and the chaplains ensure that we are attending to the spiritual needs of the patient,” Hoey said.

Very often when a patient receives a life-altering diagnosis, it raises the question of “Where is God in all this?” A medical crisis, he says, provides an opportunity for people to re-examine their lives and their relationship with God.

“We all get so busy in our day-to-day lives that those may not be questions we ask,” Hoey said. “But if you get a blocked artery or renal disease, it can provoke a crisis as well as the receptivity to take a look at spiritual issues—and what better person to help you than a well-trained chaplain?”

“Many patients are very receptive to them because it is a different component of care,” Hoey said. “Just as important as medical treatment is the question of ‘Am I right with God?’ Having a trained, empathetic, compassionate chaplain fulfills the goal of reverent holistic care. They are right there near your hospital bed. It brings the Church to the people.”