When Reverend Barbara McHenry is not meeting privately with clients in her office, she surfaces in the hallways and lobbies in search of patients in need. Several times a day she makes her way around the waiting rooms of the Carol Milgard Breast Center. As a chaplain and Spiritual Care Coordinator at this Tacoma-based breast imaging center, she is seeking out women and men in need of a very specialized kind of medical attention – the kind that cannot be treated with a stethoscope or X-ray.
Armed with an open mind and a listening ear, Barbara provides spiritual care to the women, men and families who need support and guidance when they visit the breast center. Since the program was established in 2013, Barbara has had over one thousand one-on-one encounters with patients, staff and their families.
“We believe that good healthcare serves the spirit as well as the body,” Barbara says. “Our patients walk in the door, and they’re pretty stressed. Some of that is just the nature of being a woman and our lifestyles. But you’re here to essentially see whether you have breast cancer. That’s a lot to handle for most people. You would be surprised at the number of women who come in the door and would like to talk.”
As an interfaith chaplain Barbara is trained to address the area of patient care that modern medicine cannot attend to – spiritual health. Barbara honors all faiths, cultures and individuals who seek inspiration and a sense of purpose. Her job at the breast center begins with a focus on patients or their families and their current situation, whether that happens to be diagnosis, treatment or survivorship. She supports patients as they explore what, outside of diagnosis, might contribute to a their worry, stress or suffering and helps them learn to cope.
The first chaplain assigned to an outpatient clinic in Washington State and one of just a handful in the country, Barbara does not just attend to matters of the spirit. She also serves as a liaison to breast center patients, helping them navigate the options and cope with a variety of situations, from something as simple as the stress of screening, to the complexities of the next steps in receiving treatment for diagnoses to the difficulty of informing family members about their illness.
Barbara also takes a very active role in FaithHealth in Action, the breast center’s outreach and education initiative aimed at Tacoma’s African-American women. “Every few years,” Barbara explains, “the breast center partners with the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department to identify populations in high need of mammography screening and to target our outreach efforts to populations based on geography, race and age. Studies show that African-American women are being diagnosed with cancer at a later stage and have a higher mortality rate than any other group.”
Barbara says, “Through FaithHealth in Action, I work with churches and pastors to build community engagement. This was our second season, and we plan to keep this going as an annual event. We really want to focus on engagement – we want to get people interested.”
Tea for the Soul is another initiative sponsored by the Carol Milgard Breast Center. Barbara hosts this formal tea every three months. A spiritual support group, the meeting begins with introductions from visitors. Patients explain why they have come and a little bit about themselves.
Every tea has a spiritual theme, such as “The Power of Love, Soul Call and Healing for the Holidays.” Barbara leads a healing circle, ending with an activity such as journaling, guided meditation or silent walking. After the healing circle a formal tea commences, complete with servers and appetizers and a time for participants to share sacred stories with one another. “We receive an average of 15 – 20 women every event. We limit the number of participants to 20 to maintain its intimate nature.”
At a recent Tea for the Soul gathering Barbara and guest facilitator, Karen Van Black, asked participants to take stock of their experience with the program. If the pair had any doubts their healing event was making an impact in the lives of others, this anonymous poll erased them. When asked what visitors would like program administrators to know about the Tea for the Soul experience, these survivors had plenty of positive things to say.
“This is saving my life, more than every surgery and chemo drug I’ve ever had,” one wrote. “Please keep this alive. And let me help!!”
Another said, “I love and feel comfortable as I share my story. Love and connection with others strengthen me. I share with people in unexpected ways.”
“I need help making sense of God when my pain is unbearable,” one woman shared. “I love coming to hear the other women’s stories. There’s nothing like it.”
“This gathering brings out the strengths and beliefs that people have in order to facilitate healing,” responded another.
Barbara says that she does not tackle this work alone. The caring staff at the breast center does their part in small ways every day to connect with patients and ease the stress of screenings. “I tell our staff all the time here that we all do spiritual health care – we really do – every time you say a kind word to someone or smile at someone or ask them how they’re doing, that’s a gateway to the human spirit.”
If you or someone you know would like to learn more about the Spiritual Care Program at the Carol Milgard Breast Center, call Barbara McHenry at 253-301-6556.
To learn more about getting involved in outreach programs at the Carol Milgard Breast Center, contact Marketing and Outreach Specialist, Queena Tupou, at 253-301-6555.