By Robert Hiini
Donna Ryder, an Aboriginal pastoral care assistant with Aboriginal Catholic Ministry, hadn’t expected to learn too much when she enrolled in the Clinical Pastoral Education course at Royal Perth Hospital early last year.
She had already been working for more than four years among the thousands of Aboriginal patients who visit Royal Perth each year (around 12 per cent of admissions): offering them support; helping navigate sensitive cultural issues; and sometimes helping them find their way back home – often to country hundreds of kilometres away.
It didn’t take too long into the course’s six months duration for Donna to change her mind.
Covering topics such as applied spirituality, personality development, addiction and compassion fatigue, the course took her into emotional and spiritual terrain that she says will not only benefit herself, but also the patients she serves.
“The course taught us that as you go through life, things happen and then you put them in neat tiny boxes where no-one can see,” Donna said.
“The course gives you a safe environment where you can unload those boxes.
“The people we usually meet – in ICU, people with cancer and heart problems and other things – are in spiritual distress, and the course has given us the ability to unload our own boxes before seeing them.”
Donna was one of four Catholics to complete the course late last year, along with her fellow Aboriginal Catholic Ministry pastoral care assistant, Reg Carnamah.
Clinical Pastoral Educator and course coordinator Michael Hertz said that Donna and Reg were already “compassionate and gifted care givers” but that the course was aimed at giving all of its graduates more focus in their pastoral caring.
“It’s about being able to understand what a spiritual need is and how best to offer relationship in such a way to tend to that spiritual need,” Michael said.
“Pastoral and spiritual care have a 50+ year history (at Royal Perth). We are actually growing as a service because people recognise that we are the discipline to turn to for deep seated spiritual distress that underlies illness.”
Questions of meaning and self-reflection were as old as humanity itself and were particularly acute in hospitals and places of transition. And pastoral care remained foundational to health, even if the language around it had changed.
“We have to think about rebranding pastoral care so that we can continue to meet people’s spiritual needs. We have to speak the vernacular.”
Learning is not a one way street. Michael said that working with Reg and Donna, who were featured in the July 2017 edition of The Record Magazine, had been a great education for him.
“I’ve learned as much as they did in the course (through) their commitment to young Aboriginals with the deck stacked against them; Reg’s commitment to his 12 Step sobriety group for Aboriginal men; and Donna’s intense advocacy for Aboriginal rights and services – in the community and the Church.”