VHS Hospice chaplains chameleons for individuals they serve

The chaplains who work for VHS Hospice can be considered chameleons. They slide into being listeners, confidants, conversationalists and organizers. The chaplains morph into what a patient needs.

The chaplains divide territory among Virginia Health Services’ seven nursing and rehabilitation centers. They also serve patients in-home. They meet terminally ill patients wherever the individual is most comfortable.

Admission to hospice care is done in consult with an individual’s physician. It is for individuals who have a terminal prognosis with six or fewer months to live. An individual may live longer than that and remain in hospice care.

Hospice provides a holistic approach to end-of-life care. A team that includes nursing staff, social workers, therapists, dieticians, volunteers and others support individuals to maintain their dignity and comfort through their end of life.

That team also includes the chaplains, who work as team as well in supporting one another and the individuals they serve. The team is led by Bereavement Coordinator Lee Jewett. This interview was conducted with Jewett, Marguerita Wimberly and James Jackson. Dr. Richard Croxton joined the team to cover Walter Reed and Lancashire nursing and rehabilitation centers.

What is a hospice chaplain?

There’s a difference between a pastor and a chaplain, Jewett explains.

“A chaplain is like in the military, the person that whether a soldier is an atheist or whatever, they can come to this person and talk. And they won’t feel as though they are going to have a chaplain’s dogma pushed upon them. Now if the person wants the dogma, then James, Marguerita and I are thrilled to share that,” Jewett says, “but we want them to know that we’re there to hold their hand to encourage them and tell them that it’s going to be OK. … Like a fellow pilgrim, walking them down this final pathway that they’re going through and helping them.”

Getting to know individuals

The chaplains for VHS Hospice introduce themselves in an initial assessment and explain the program. The conversation focuses on getting to know an individual and “meeting them where they are,” said Wimberly, who serves as a part-time chaplain and social worker with VHS Hospice.

“You find out their religious backgrounds, if they are a part of any religious organizations. And you find out their spiritual needs. Then you try to gear your interactions with them to where the need is,” she said.

Bishop James Jackson says hospice chaplains are “Swiss Army knives.”

“That’s something I really feel wholeheartedly about that part of our calling is,” Jewett said. “I’m a Baptist, Christian and devout just like Marguerita and James are, very devout within their Christian belief system. But when I come in, if a person’s a devout Christian, I’m all on it and just thrilled to pieces and energized by it.

“But if they’re not, you know, to a NASCAR fan, I’ll be a NASCAR fan too. Yes, Yankee fan? Yes. To a bookworm, I’ll be a bookworm you know, as best as possible. So, I try to make myself as well rounded as possible so I can relate to many as many people as possible.”

Jackson also has a degree in psychology.

“I also put (the individual) in the aspect of thinking of it from a mind perspective. OK, this is going to happen. This is what you should do when this happens,” he says. “It’s OK to be upset, it’s OK to cry. It’s OK to have these types of things, because that’s how the body engages on what is going on.

“But it’s not the end all be all. So, they could with me, get the best of both worlds. They get the psychological aspect, but they also get the spiritual ramification as well.”

Bereavement support

Jackson says the VHS Hospice chaplains try to meet monthly as a group.

“If for nothing else but to just come together, talk with one another, talk about different strategies, different things that are going on, you know, kind of lift each other spiritually, because we’re dealing with people every day with problems, issues and concerns. And then we too have issues and concerns as well. It’s all about that iron sharpens iron mentality,” he says.

Bereavement support from VHS Hospice extends about a year after an individual passes. The chaplains make an initial call and assessment. Jewett handles the follow up, keeping careful track on a spreadsheet of getting communication to the family. It also spreads to the nursing and social worker staff to offer comfort. There are calls, cards from the staff and bereavement coaching letters.

“People can get at least a couple calls of comfort and know that we care about them,” Jewett says, “and that we’re here for them.”

Walking the path

The hospice team is there for the individual and their loved ones through the end of someone’s life, providing dignity and comfort.

“Sometimes death is OK for people, if they feel like everything is going to be good in the afterlife,” Jewett says. “Sometimes death can be very scary for a person. Sometimes death can be very painful for a person and that’s really what hospice tries to prevent.

“But sometimes death can be extremely worrisome, like, wow, what’s going to happen with my family now because, you know, I’m the patriarch or the matriarch and everything revolves, has revolved around me? So, we’re kind of there to try to be sensitive to whatever emotional, spiritual needs that might be presented by whichever particular patient.”

Learn more about VHS Hospice at vahs.com/hospicecare.

VHS Rehabilitation physical therapist shares best part of job is focus on individuals

Nancy Funkhouser doesn’t mind putting 100 to 125 miles on her car in a day. It’s part of the job.

And it’s a job she loves. Funkhouser is a physical therapist with VHS Rehabilitation whose patients are all coordinated through VHS Home Health Care.

“To have the privilege to do something that makes you happy, and that pays your bills, that’s like the best of both worlds. I don’t know why you’d work anywhere else or do anything else,” she says.

Focus on individuals

The role allows her to focus solely on an individual.

“The thing I love about home care is it’s you and your patient one-on-one,” Funkhouser says. “That patient gets 150% of your attention, 150% of your effort and it’s just you and them. No other outside distractions or pull to your focus.”

VHS Home Health Care helps get individuals back to living their best life by providing skilled care in the comfort of their home. The home health team contracts physical, occupational and speech therapists through VHS Rehabilitation as part of Virginia Health Services’ spectrum of services.

The VHS lines of service give individuals the best access to their care needs regardless of where they live in southeast Virginia.

Because of the nature of skilled home health care, time is often determined by insurance. Funkhouser says, “You really need to pack in as much as you can in those sessions to get as much potential and gain and recovery of function as you can.”

The supervisors make an initial visit to open a care plan and create goals with the individual. The treatment plan is rolled out to the clinical team.

“Everybody is focused on giving the patients what they need. You hope that by the end of your time with them, you’ve met the goals for your patient.”

Nancy Funkhouser

The team’s consistency allows individuals to see the same faces, “which is always better for overall patient recovery,” Funkhouser said.

Status changes can be identified and dealt with quickly when you and your team members know a patient. And the more you see them, the more they get to know you.

“When I’m with them, I give them as much as I can in the time we have,” she says.

Being a PT

Funkhouser knew she wanted to be a therapist since she was a teenager. She observed the therapists who worked with her father after he had major open-heart surgery.

That exposure to therapists in the hospital inspired her to be a therapist. She volunteered in high school and then went to school for therapy.

She spent 20 years in a hospital setting before working in home health settings a decade ago. She joined VHS Rehabilitation about six years ago and started with VHS Home Health Care a few months after it launched in 2015.

Working with VHS Home Health Care and VHS Rehabilitation put Funkhouser “in an optimal position to do what I do best, and that’s get wrapped up with the patient and get them better.”

It’s rewarding. There is independence and autonomy for the clinical team in providing quality care to the individuals VHS Home Health Care and Rehab serve.

“Here, everybody is focused on giving the patients what they need,” she says. “You hope that by the end of your time with them, you’ve met the goals for your patient.”

The passion for patients and for the job come through in Funkhouser’s voice.

“At the end of the day, I feel like if it’s a job you really like a lot, you tend to give a lot of yourself to it,” she said. “It’s just a win-win.”

Individualized patient care key for VHS Home Health Care nurse

Virginia Health Services is shining a light on our team members. We want to spotlight the roles our team members play to support individuals to live their best life and showcase the VHS culture. With National Nurses Day on Friday, we are spotlighting VHS Home Health Care nurse Tia Hunter.

Tia Hunter heard about VHS Home Health Care from a friend.

She had done some one-on-one visits with patients as a certified nurse assistant (CNA), but hadn’t conducted skilled visits.

A nurse since 2009 — she’s getting ready to take her boards after graduating RN school with Medical Careers Institute — Hunter said she trusted her friend’s suggestion to work together for VHS Home Health Care.

“I love it,” Hunter says of working as an LPN with VHS Home Health Care for the past year and a half.

“For me, I like having that one-on-one with the patient. I’m not rushed; I have that time to focus. And I’m reachable to them.”

Hunter said nurses see on average five to six patients a day.

Day in the life

Portrait of Tia Hunter, an African-American RN with VHS Home Health Care.
Tia Hunter has been a nurse with VHS Home Health Care for more than a year.

VHS Home Health Care serves the Peninsula, Gloucester and Southside. Hunter said where patients live factors into a day’s schedule to account for the travel time.

She said she always has been drawn to senior care.

“I just love them. I think they’re so cute. … My grandma passed and I wanted to know her so bad; I get that when I see my patients,” Hunter said.

The culture at VHS Home Health Care is patient-based.

“For me, I like having that one-on-one with the patient,” Hunter said. “I’m not rushed, I have that focus time, I’m reachable to them.”

Team effort

Working with patients in-home pairs physical, speech and occupational therapists from VHS Rehabilitation with the clinical team at VHS Home Health Care.

“I think it’s a great place to work,” Hunter said. “… We have a good staff. (The clinical team) communicates well with the therapists with VHS Rehab. It’s rare to find a team that blends this well as a whole.”

The team comes together under the leadership of Cheri Brnich, Kelly Cofield and Donna Marchant-Roof, who is the executive director of VHS Home Health Care and Hospice.

“I genuinely just love our management,” Hunter said of Brnich. “I’ve never really had a boss like Cheri. She genuinely cares about us and how we’re doing, are we OK, even outside of work. … It’s very rare you find a company that somebody cares about you as a person. She values us as employees.”

The team of nursing staff, therapists, social workers and other individuals develop a care plan to return an individual to their best life.

“Aha moments”

Hunter takes pride in the “aha moments” that get the individuals she works with back to where they want to be. As individuals usually see the same team of clinicians, if there is a change in status, it can be determined quickly.

“When we’re in the home, sometimes we can stop them from having something happen and could save their life,” she said.

Calls, Google reviews and hearty thank-yous stay with you long after the home health care period ends, Hunter said. “It’s so appreciated.”

The quality of care and consistency of the team is also appreciated.

“Going into a home, sometimes even just 45 minutes, it changes their whole day,” Hunter said. “They love it.”

Join our team

We are hiring full-time LPNs and a full-time RN for our VHS Home Health Care team. For a full list of opportunities, visit vahs.com/careers.