People have asked me what CPE is. I tell them it is Clinical Pastoral Education. Then they ask me what that is? So then I tell them it is learning how to do pastoral work in a clinical setting. At this point they usually look at me like they are even more confused. So then I say it is really a discovery of self. The conversation ends there most of the time and they walk off more confused than when they first asked the question. To be honest it is hard at times to explain but let me try. The unit I am in involves 125 hours in the classroom and 300 hours on the floor of the hospital working with patients, doctors and nurses over a six month period.
The 125 hours in the classroom involves around five and a half hours a week in the classroom, which for my unit is held on Thursday afternoons. There are a variety of things that happen during that time. We have books that we read on ministry and grief and other subjects and we write reports on these and present them in class. Sometimes doctors from different areas in the hospital come in and talk about their specialties. We have others come in and do demonstrations about how to deal with people who have just lost loved ones or who are dying themselves. We even have classes on how to deal with minority patients and how to calm people down when they are angry. We also present verbatims which are conversations we have had with patients. The rest of the class listens to them and debates how we could have done it better, what we could have said differently. We present theological reflections about our work at the hospital and those also get evaluated by the class. We spend a lot of time talking about ourselves and our reactions to situations in the hospital and getting feedback from students and staff. There are both tears and anger expressed around the table for and at each other. It is part of the process of learning about ourselves so that we can serve others.
The 300 hours on the floor involves visiting with patients in their rooms and addressing their needs. We listen to them and pray with them and deal with their families. We also do advance directives like powers of attorney and living wills. We spend time working in the emergency room taking care of families of loved ones who are brought in and many times die there. We deal with doctors, police officers, coroners and grieving families sometimes several times a night. We also deal with strokes and heart attacks and people being extubated. You may ask what an extubation is. Basically it is when the doctors have concluded that the person is not going to make it and they remove the breathing tubes from the person. Chaplains prepare and stay with the family until the patient dies.
We take all of these experiences and present some of them in class as verbatims and case studies. One of the questions we ask of each other is how did you identify with the patient and the family and what counter story was going on within you the whole time? These are important to identify because they can reveal things in our past that we have suppressed and are now being brought to the surface. These things can also get in the way of taking care of the patient and their family. The goal is get it all out in the open so you can deal with it honestly and put it behind you and learn how to focus on the patient instead of yourself. Needless to say all of this is emotionally exhausting but also very educational and helpful in dealing with others. I think this is a good program for a parish pastor because it teaches you how to talk to people at a different level and gives you experience working with people who are in distress and sometimes questioning God’s existence or his love for them.
The program I am in started October 12th of last year and ends April 5th. So we are about a month away from the end. I have enjoyed the class but I am looking forward to it being done, although I will miss working in the emergency room or ED as they call it at St. Vincent’s, it was both terrifying and exciting. So that is Clinical Pastoral Education.