Sarah Gillespie, a chaplain for St. Mary’s Regional Medical Center in Lewiston, poses in the intensive care unit, where she does much of her work. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

LEWISTON — The woman knew she was dying and asked Sarah Gillespie for a prayer.

“I held her hand,” Gillespie, 36, said. “I really felt connected with her and just wished her peace and comfort and love and to be free from suffering and worry. Those kinds of moments are really impactful for me, when I’m with somebody at the end, when it’s very crucial and they have more life to live that they’re not going to live.

“I always know where tissues are on every unit,” she said.

Gillespie, who moved to Maine three years ago, is one of St. Mary’s Regional Medical Center’s chaplains. She spends much of her time in the intensive care unit, visiting patients before surgery and visiting newborns.

When babies are a day old, she asks parents if they’d like a blessing.

“Some people are confused — a woman chaplain, Catholic hospital, people are always like, ‘Are you a nun?'” Gillespie said. “It was obvious when I was pregnant that I was not a nun, which is funny for some people. I say some words that probably everybody can hear: Being grateful that this baby was born, wishing the parents compassion and patience, and also just reminding the baby that they’re a blessing and that they’re loved and that we’re glad they’re in this world. It is a really fun part.”

She grew up in New Jersey with a love of the church, and said turning 18 around the 9/11 terrorist attacks, happening so close to home, deepened her exploration around faith.

“I had a curiosity about how does the world work?” Gillespie said. “What makes it possible that things like this happen and what happens after that?”

She worked at Washington, D.C., nonprofits for five years after college before enrolling in seminary, eventually becoming a Unitarian Universalist minister.

“It just kept nagging me — it was one of those things you just can’t say no anymore,” Gillespie said. “So it was kind of a strange, subtle calling, it wasn’t a burning bush somewhere. It felt like something was missing, that’s the only way I can describe it.”

She was drawn to meeting new people, creating relationships, and in hospitals, people having so many different stories, at so many different times in their life, to share.

“I might meet someone who is a devout Catholic or a young Somali woman who’s coming to the birthing center or someone who is totally unaffiliated and recovering from being an alcoholic,” Gillespie said. “It’s almost like a constant lesson on impermanence for me: All we have is right now and this conversation and this moment while you’re in the hospital, and you kind of make the most of that time.”

She listens as patients and families talk out anger, grief, numbness, hope and, sometimes, doubt.

“I often hear from people, ‘I know that God’s with me, I know that God’s helping me through this,’ but sometimes the hospital is a point of doubt in people’s faith, ‘Why am I here? Why did this happen?'” she said. “I kind of make sure in that moment that people know that doubt is not the opposite of faith, it’s just your faith becomes more complex when you ask those questions.”

Gillespie recently met a young family in which weeks after the husband died, the wife was in the hospital with complications after a surgery.

“It was just one thing after another, she was intubated for a while,” Gillespie said. “It was just like her family was going through hell. Chaplains, in general, are not really big advice givers. My job in that situation is to tell them, ‘This is really hard. This isn’t fair.’ I’m constantly normalizing, ‘No, this shouldn’t be happening to you after you just lost your dad.'”

About one-third of patients in the hospital have no religious preference. She offers her time and ear to them, too, if they’d like it. Some do, some don’t.

Gillespie said part of her role is also supporting St. Mary’s staff.

“We actually drop a little stone in a vase with the person’s first name on it if they pass away in ICU and we hold a moment of silence for them at our rounds to really honor their life and honor our care for them, completely non-religious, but just one of those rituals to mark, ‘We cared for this person,'” she said. “‘They had a beautiful and probably flawed human life, and now that life as we know it is over.’ Staff, we get attached, too.”


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