Offering hope, spreading cheer during the holidays

Sometimes it just takes a smile to brighten the holidays. L. Vern Farnum Director of Spiritual Care & Chaplaincy for IU Health talks about the importance of caring for others this time of year.

By IU Health Senior Journalist T.J. Banes,

One family unloads a car filled with toys at IU Health Riley Hospital for Children. Their son once spent Christmas in the hospital. Across campus, in the bone marrow unit of University Hospital, giant stockings are hung and miniature pink Christmas trees are displayed. And at Methodist Hospital, a little elf is busy hanging bright lights in a waiting area.

“I know what it’s like to be in the hospital during the holidays. It’s good to help others by spreading a little cheer,” said Terri Miller, an Ohio resident who received two kidney transplants at IU Health University Hospital – first in November of 2001 and then in November 2017. She recently returned to the hospital to pass out candy canes and stockings to patients and her caregivers – including nurse Christine Gibson, nurse practitioner Lee Ann Jones, nephrologist Dr. Dennis Mishler, and transplant surgeon Dr. William Goggins.

“A smile or a small gift can go a long way during what can be a dark time,” said a mom of a Riley patient, who recently delivered toys to the hospital.

Passersby had broad smiles as Case Manager Theresa Osmulski, Rachel Alvey, and Melissa Mahoney with IU School of Medicine laughed about Alvey’s festive reindeer ears. The grins were what they hoped for.

The focus of the holidays is about helping patients, caregivers, and loved ones, find ways to celebrate the season – given the reality of the reason they are in the hospital, said L. Vern Farnum, director of spiritual care and chaplaincy. “We encourage patients to find something that gives them peace, joy and a sense of meaning. Often that means celebrating the love of family,” said Farnum. With the help of technology, patients who travel from distant states and even other countries are able to connect with their loved ones.

“We had one patient who contracted a mysterious illness and ended up in the hospital on Christmas day. All he wanted to do was see his black lab. We allowed the family to bring the dog in and it was awesome seeing the patient’s face light up,” said Farnum, who typically works on Christmas Day. “It’s rare to hear nurses grumble when they work the holidays. They see this as their calling. Patients are sick and they’re here to care for them. More often than not, I see them bring in special treats to share.”

There are other touches too that help lift spirits – ornaments hanging from IV poles, framed photos in patients’ rooms and mini trees, menorahs and kinaras.

“It’s a time when almost all faiths have celebrations that involve light. Each tradition happens in its own way but we encourage that symbolism to be shared,” said Farnum. For safety purposes electric or battery candles replace actual flames. “And there’s always an abundance of food. In some ways it becomes a time of fellowship for families and caregivers,” said Farnum.

As the chaplain team began planning and preparing for the holidays, one offered the following insight: “We need to realize that while this is Hallmark movie season, we should not buy into the Hallmark fantasy. Sometimes it’s a sad and imperfect time and we’re here to help patients and families get through that in the best possible way we can.”