A near-death experience in 1999 left Tracy Tobel in a months-long coma and set his life on an unexpected path.
During his recovery, first at St. Vincent Healthcare in Billings and then at a hospital in Seattle, the long hours were punctuated by compassionate visits from hospital chaplains.
“I was told several times I should not have lived,” the 49-year-old Joliet rancher said.
So, as he regained his health, he charted a new mission for his life.
“I wanted to give back,” he said.
He is one of three students enrolled in the newly created chaplain training program that began in February at St. Vincent Healthcare. The Association for Clinical Pastoral Education has granted the hospital provisional accreditation to St. Vincent Healthcare to serve as a satellite training center. A site visit is scheduled for April with full accreditation expected shortly afterward.
It would be the only ACPE-accredited program in the region and one of 450 accredited programs in the country.
The training at St. Vincent Healthcare is provided in collaboration with The Chaplaincy of Richland, Wash.
Tobel serves as a lay pastoral associate for Lutheran churches in Laurel, Joliet and Cody. To become a hospital chaplain through a program at St. Vincent brings his new life full circle.
“I had St. Vincent’s A-Team that night,” Tobel said. “God was looking out for me.”
Being hospitalized is more than physically challenging. It can be emotionally and spiritually challenging as well, said Chaplain Terry Hollister, coordinator of ministry formation and clinical pastoral education at St. Vincent Healthcare. Chaplains are there to provide support for the emotional and spiritual challenges that accompany illness and hospitalization.
Spiritual caregivers provide services to people of various faiths and cultures throughout Montana and surrounding states. They provide care to those in hospitals, skilled nursing facilities, hospices, retirement communities and other settings.
“This fits our mission well,” said Hollister.
Having clinical pastoral education available in Montana will improve spiritual care in the region, Hollister said. It will contribute to meeting the long-term needs, as chaplains are trained to continue the work of those who came before them, many who will soon reach retirement age.
Lin Roscoe, 70, a retired nurse from Billings, is one of the students in the program. She chose this program specifically because of St. Vincent’s mission.
“It’s people helping people,” Roscoe said. “It’s a calling to serve God’s people, especially the suffering.
Throughout health care, there is a growing understanding of the chaplain’s importance as a professional who provides spiritual assessment for the patient and family and then determines what resources they can draw on, said Rev. Wes McIntyre, ACPE program supervisor.
Chaplains are there to listen to patient concerns, share with them in their faith and assist them in processing their experience of illness and hospitalization.
“It’s a big deal,” McIntyre said. “Our region is celebrating the presence of a program at St. Vincent Healthcare.”
The hospital is pioneering a new model of clinical training, utilizing video-conferencing technology to provide greater access to this training.
St. Vincent’s program marks the first time in eight years that Billings has had a Clinical Pastoral Education Center. The community-sponsored Northern Rockies CPE Center was established in 1991. The nonprofit center was originally based in Billings with financial support from St. Vincent, Billings Clinic, churches and other hospitals in the state, along with grants and individual donors.
For several years, a full-time CPE supervisor lived in Billings. But in later years, funding for the $75,000-a-year program became increasingly difficult and the center was not able to support a full-time supervisor, said Susan Thomas, coordinator of Pastoral Care at Billings Clinic.
For a while, a supervisor was flown in each month to meet with students, and for a short time Northern Rockies became a satellite program of St. Luke’s Regional Medical Center in Boise, Idaho.
The program closed in January 2006.
Plans to resurrect a local training center took off with the arrival in 2011 of Jason Barker, who recently resigned as CEO of St. Vincent Healthcare.
“He saw the vision of what it would do for the hospital … and the region,” Hollister said. “It’s a good thing when the CEO is on your side.”
When he arrived, Barker said he did not view health care as a business but as a healing ministry. Soon, the wheels were put in motion to create the Clinical Pastoral Education program.
"The development of the CPE program at St. Vincent is a unique expression of our desire to meet all needs of our patients — body, mind, and spirit,” Barker said before his departure last month. “Graduates will be uniquely qualified to meet the spiritual needs of patients and their loved ones."
Steve Loveless, acting president and CEO at St. Vincent, embraces the program. He said it is a reflection of the organization living its mission. This program not only reinforces the hospital’s desire to serve all patient needs, but also provides an opportunity for students to receive qualified training close to home.
“St. Vincent serves as a meaningful place to learn about compassion, healing and wholeness,” Loveless said. “The great curriculum, paired with our quality instructors and medical professionals, will equip our graduates with the proper tools and experience needed to serve the spiritual needs of patients and their families.”
The goal of chaplains at St. Vincent Healthcare is to see every patient in the hospital. To do that, the hospital employs 11 chaplains, five of them full-time, six part-time.
Hospital officials would not disclose the program’s annual budget. They would only say that compared to the program eight years ago, costs are streamlined by the use of video conferencing technology.
Billings Clinic has no immediate plans to create its own Clinical Pastoral Education Center, Thomas said, as there is a multitude of ways to be trained. One of the Clinic’s chaplains, for example, is currently completing an online course.
Though Billings Clinic is not a religious-based hospital like St. Vincent, the Clinic seeks to care for the whole person, and spiritual care is an important part of that, Thomas said.
“Our role as Billings Clinic chaplains is to bring listening ears and thoughtful words to tender situations,” said Thomas. “Our team offers spiritual and emotional support during times of concern and crisis. The chaplains pray many prayers and help people draw upon the spiritual resources that are important for them. Patient and family visits, support groups and interdisciplinary team consultations all provide settings for chaplain care."
The Clinic has one full-time chaplain, four part-time chaplains and one per diem. All of them are seminary-educated with master’s degrees. Some received their pastoral education at the Northern Rockies Pastoral Education Center before it closed.
Neither St. Vincent Healthcare nor Billings Clinic would disclose their chaplains’ salaries.
The Association of Professional Chaplains’ salary survey from 2011, the most recent available, lists the national median salary range of $57,500 for a hospital chaplain. It would be reasonable to say that today a range would be from $55,000 to $65,000 depending on the region of the country, McIntyre said. Salaries also vary based on educational level.