On a Friday morning in August, Rev. Adrian Dixon tapped on a hospital room door at Duke Raleigh hospital, asking permission to enter.
The patient, Gwendolyn Walker granted it, and he introduced himself as the hospital’s chaplain and director of spiritual care.
Although some patients are curt with him and others are initially nervous that they are nearer their end than they thought, Walker was one of the many who are glad to see him.
“I was wondering where the chaplain was,” she said.
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Usually, he’s just showing up to chat, like with Walker – to hear if their stay is going well, and offer a listening ear and prayer.
He likes to make them laugh, and ask after their families.
But Dixon’s job isn’t simply social. As the hospital’s first and only full-time chaplain since 2004, he is also on call in the middle of the night if there is a death. He spends most of his day on the second floor of the hospital in the intensive care unit and progressive care unit.
“I think it was important for Duke to follow the standard of care they’re known for,” he said of the hospital’s decision to add a chaplain service.
“We had a CEO who used to say, ‘we have doctors of the body, doctors of the mind (psychiatrists), and you’re a doctor of the soul,’” he added.
In addition to leading worship services at the hospital’s chapel, he also sits in with doctors when they deliver serious news to a patient’s family.
For the patient, he also acts as an advocate. If a patient feels that they are not being heard by the staff, they can request his service as something of an advocate for their cause.
“When people are with you, within five minutes they are sharing more with you then they have with lifelong friends,” he said.
It’s because they might need to be strong for their family, or can’t open up about their fears to busy hospital staff.
On Friday, he entered an elevator and immediately noticed a middle-aged woman who was clearly agitated. He asked how she was feeling, and she said she was nervous about her daughter’s spinal surgery.
After he asked some more questions and asked if she was being cared for properly, he promised to come visit them later that day. She eagerly accepted.
Many hospitals in the Triangle and nationwide offer around-the-clock chaplain services for both patients and their families.
While Dixon’s job is draining – his hardest day was when a newborn only survived a few minutes – he is able to recover from the daily emotional strain through sports, walks through the Duke Raleigh gardens and reading. It’s often hard for him to put the day’s experiences into words.
“There were days I’d think, I’m not cut out for this,” he said. “But what it really goes back to is call – you can try running away but it’s still going to be there.”
Later, he adds, “In spite of all the stuff you see, I leave every day thankful.”
Much of his day is spent managing five chaplain interns each school semester, acting as a self-dubbed “mother hen.”
Dixon is also a pastor at Northside Community Church in Knightdale. But while the two jobs have similarities, he said, they’re very different.
For example, he doesn’t usually disclose his personal faith to his patients. His job, he said, is to honor their needs. If he cannot fulfill a request, he’ll find someone who can. The hospital has local faith leaders of all backgrounds who are on call for spiritual care.
“I’m facilitating their spiritual well-being,” he said.