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The Art of Ministering Comfort

Show Notes

You may have heard of animal chaplains.

They are spiritual caregivers who provide support and comfort to individuals who are grieving the loss of a beloved companion animal or who are facing difficult decisions related to their pets’ health and wellbeing.

And then there’s Scott Campbell, veterinary chaplain.

Veterinary chaplains are rare in the United States. Scott is one of just a handful of these trained professionals who provide emotional and spiritual support to veterinary staff, in addition to pet guardians and the animals in veterinary settings.

There are even fewer of them affiliated with a university, and Scott practices his craft at Washington State University, just down the road from me in Pullman, Washington.

A veterinary chaplain’s role may seem similar to that of a chaplain in human healthcare but individuals like Scott focus specifically on the unique challenges and emotional experiences within the veterinary medicine realm.

Scott joins me on the podcast today to share his journey into veterinary chaplaincy and his passion for supporting the emotional well-being of pets, pet guardians and the world-class team at WSU, affectionately known in these parts as WAZZU.

We talk about the challenges faced by the veterinary profession, including its high suicide rates, and how his own experiences are motivating him to establish the American Association for Veterinary Chaplains.

Have a listen as Scott shares how he aims to alleviate the emotional burdens of the veterinary community and foster healing for those of us who suffer as our companion animals need care.

What to listen for

  • How Scott ensures WSU clients feel comfortable and heard
  • Why a veterinary chaplain must be prepared to address a variety of belief structures
  • The evolution of companion animals as family members in society
  • What Scott finds more rewarding about veterinary chaplaincy

Scott hosts a series of events called Celebration of Life and Remembrance for our Animal Companions for pet guardians to grieve and honor the lives of their precious babes. The event will feature a Remembrance Garland Ceremony, during which participants write messages on ribbons and attach them to a garland that’s hung outside the Veterinary Teaching Hospital at WSU in Pullman.

The next one is set for Saturday, April 13, at the Elson S. Floyd Cultural Center. It starts at 10:30 a.m., doors open at 10 a.m. and Scott suggests it’s a good idea to arrive early to prepare a ribbon for the garland.

A social hour follows from 11:15 a.m. to 12:15 p.m.

Transcript

Angela  

Good morning, Scott. How are you this fine Friday morning?

Scott 

Morning, Angela. I’m doing great. Thank you for asking. How are things up in Spokane?

Angela  

Oh, things are great. The sun is out. I’m sure. I mean, you’re not that far for me. So I’m sure it’s bloody brilliant down there too.

Scott 

Yeah, it was actually cloudy on my way in, but it’s it’s blue skies and sun now. So I’ll take that.

Angela  

Yeah, honestly, we haven’t had a really, really good spring in a few years. We are due.

Scott 

Indeed, indeed.

Angela  

So I found you, Scott, because you are a pet chaplain at the Washington State University veterinary medicine. Give us a little … give us the Reader’s Digest version of how that happened.

Scott 

Yeah, so actually, let me correct to exonym of I call myself a veterinary chaplain. And the way that came about was, I was doing my work in seminary, and I realized that and I was training for inter religious chaplaincy, and I needed to figure out what I really wanted to do with my chaplaincy. And, and I found that public chaplaincy was something that really spoke to me, rather than traditional hospital and hospice and things like that, and, and through the process, I became aware of the challenges that the veterinary profession has been having in terms of their suicide rates and such.

The veterinary profession has always been very good to my family. My father in law, my wife, both veterinarians, so I’ve been around the profession for like 45 years, and decided that this was an area that surely was robust, and I could jump right in and participate in. And when I started to look into it, I found out that it was actually fairly spread out in chaotic, people will call themselves pet chaplains, animal chaplains. Veterinary chaplains are just chaplains. And that doesn’t necessarily correlate to any particular population that they serve. I found that out of the mix of all of those that about 80 to 85% of them focused on client are human companion, grief and loss. And that’s really low hanging fruit for a chaplain, any chaplain could step in and, and help out with grief and loss, they would just have to shift a little bit for thinking about it being an animal companion. Then about 10 to 15%, were focused on spirituality, the animal kingdom, which is an area that I was aware of, but I didn’t think that it had that kind of a following. And the sector that I was most interested in the help for the professionals was a very narrow sliver, and about 5% maybe, and those were predominantly served by veterinary social workers. So I decided that needed to change. I also in the earlier in life was a computer guy and disorganization is a challenge for me. So I’ve actually founded the American Association for veterinary chaplains to sort of bring us all together in one at least facing in one direction. And serving those three pillar communities. The clients are the human companions, the patients and the animal health care team.

Angela  

Very cool. Indeed, our vet clinics are under a good bit of strain. Most recently, especially considering the pandemic and restrained budgets, what kind of stress are you seeing in the veterinary staff at WAZZU and how do you respond to that?

Scott 

Yeah, the available veterinary care in the country has shrunk. A lot of veterinarians that were close to retirement or had retirement on the horizon decided that that was their execute. That it was just so where they might have gone on another five or 10 years and done transition to new incoming veterinarians that didn’t take place. And so we have reduced supply of services. At the same time, people found themselves at home alone more and you may recall that there were a lot of new adoptions and, and new animal companions in folks homes during that time.

And so we had more patients, fewer staff. So, so here at, at the teaching hospital, we find that our schedules are booked out. You know, weeks, sometimes, sometimes months, depending upon, I guess I shouldn’t say that. I don’t know that for sure. But definitely weeks. And it’s just very challenging, especially when you’re offering specialized service, which, which we do have specialty, all the specialties here. So and I think that we’re seeing that across the, across the board. And, and so the stress is, it’s just, it’s, you know, throughput, making sure that we’re, we’re seeing these people, but people are also coming in with more angst. Because, you know, it’s more challenging to get care, and such. So it’s really a, you know, it’s like one step to the next and, and you need to keep moving. And I think that really wears and it is difficult for folks.

Angela  

Yeah, if you break down those three pillars, client, animal and vet staff, how does your chaplaincy shift between each pillar?

Scott 

Yeah, so it’s kind of interesting with the, with the clients, I’ll go down several times a day to the waiting room, and I will directly engage all the clients in the waiting room, just to see how they’re doing, if there’s anything that I can do to make their stay a little bit nicer, if they have things they want to talk about, they know that I’m there. And I’ve, I’ve gone out of my way to engage them. So they don’t feel like oh, I don’t know, whether I should bother him or not. And, you know, in some folks want to talk, some folks don’t want to talk and that’s fine. Go either way with that.

Some folks that that are there that have a companion there that’s there for some serious work, some real unknown, I go out of my way to make sure that they know that I can add their, their companion to my prayer list. And if they’re going into surgery, for example, and they’ve already, you know, accepted the prayer list, you know, I offered to actually lay a hand and say a prayer over their companion prior to going under anesthesia. And, you know, a fair number take me up on that, but it’s really no pressure, it’s just an offer. And I think there’s some solace there.

For the patients, it’s, it’s a little different. Of course, you know, prayers for them. That’s, that’s par for the course. But one of my challenges was thinking about how I can actually make a substantial impact on their experience. And so I sort of think about in human medicine, what would I do? While I would offer the patient, you know, my services, what can I do to make your, your time here, easier, more comfortable. And so I started thinking about how many patients come into the hospital nervous, or, or slight reactive to other folks, other patients. And, and that got me to thinking about, well, what can we do about the waiting room to make that make at least a part of that waiting room, more comfortable for our patients.

And so we created a quiet corner, which has a little partition. So it’s visually blocked off from the rest of the room. We put a raised table in there for folks to put their carriers for their small companions on there so that they’re out of direct sight line of what might be predators for them. Certainly cats like to have a higher perch and be able to see out over things, gives them more sense of safety. And then we’ve also provided some pheromone sprayed bandanas for cats and dogs, so that you know, as a calming implement, so those are all things that that we’ve put in place to try and make it a better experience for them. Because we know that they’re really intuitive, right and, and, and our humans really care about a about their companions. And so if the human senses that their companion is has anxiety, they’re gonna get a little anxiety, their companion might sense that that would amp theirs, and it just can get into a real cycle. So. So that’s how directly approaching the the patient is, is, is valuable.

And then for the healthcare team, I make myself available, I certainly wander through the entire hospital, you know, about every 10 days, I don’t want to be a pain, right? But remind them that I’m available. And some folks will reach out, sometimes on my walks will have conversations. And we’re also starting a new program called a balance group, which has been popular in human medicine for a long time. And we’re trying to transition that into veterinary medicine, which is an opportunity for the professionals to sit down and, and talk about cases not about the medicine of the case, but about the emotions and the relationships of cases. So that’s how I, I’m approaching those three, three pillars differently.

Angela  

Very cool. We talked a bit of off camera about how our country is becoming increasingly secular. And we have a greater variety of theologies in our, in our society, how do you respond to those different belief structures?

Scott 

Yeah. So I, I come from a place where what I believe, really doesn’t matter. What matters is what, uh, what’s the faith tradition? What are the beliefs of the person with whom I’m talking. And unfortunately, in my education in seminary, I got exposed to a fairly broad range of, of faith traditions. And so it’s not, it’s not super hard for me to be reasonably conversational in a variety of faith traditions. So I might be talking to somebody who’s Jewish, and I can talk with them in their, in their framework, I can talk to a Buddhist in their framework, I can talk to a Catholic relatively well in their framework. And of course, atheists, you know, and then I do what we call code switching, which is, like, you know, we’re talking in one particular faith tradition. framework, and I can sort of make the translation in my mind is in terms of what that means to me. So if a Catholic wants to talk about the suffering of Jesus, and, and the ramifications of that, I can do the switching in my mind. So that makes that works with my own spirituality. And I can be genuine in that conversation using their language.

Angela  

Sure. What are some of the misconceptions that you’ve encountered about veterinary chaplaincy?

Scott 

Yeah, most of them have been nonverbal. But I get sometimes when I approach people, it’ll be like, Nope, I don’t need to talk to you. You know, and, and what I get from that is either they don’t feel emotionally safe. Or they feel like I’ve got something to sell. I think that in the past, chaplaincy has been tied up in proselytization. And, and I’m not here to sell anything. I’m here to relieve suffering. And so it’s, so that’s one particular challenge that I’ve had. I think another misconception is that people think that I’m just there for the clients. Certainly, that’s my most visible and most frequent thing that I do. And yet at the same time, I am thinking about how can I make this a better experience spiritually and emotionally for our patients? How can I make this environment better spiritually and emotionally for the entire veterinary healthcare team? And so those don’t get seen as much, but they are equally as important to me and certainly the healthcare team is why I got into this in the first place. So yeah, of course, that’s going to have a special place in my heart.

Angela  

One of the themes I’ve been touching on quite frequently, recently, is the evolution of how we perceive companion animals place in our society when I grew up the 70s, and somewhat rural Nova Scotia, dogs were quite disposable. We didn’t have a fenced yard, we lived right next to the Trans-Canada Highway, you’d hear a smack. You know, and two weeks later, we’d have another dog. I cannot live without a dog in my life. Now my dog is my best friend, she, she is my soulmate, my everything, my husband accepts his place in the world. How do you see that evolution from your perspective?

Scott 

Yeah, things are shifting, things are shifting, I think the most recent statistics I’ve seen is that about 70, about 70% of our households have animal companions in them. And of those problems, significantly more than half of those families consider their animal companion, an actual member of the family. And so there is a lot more cohesion in in that in that picture. And, and yet, publicly, I think there is still a lot of messaging that, oh, it’s just a cat, you can get another one, you know, it’s just a guinea pig, you can get another one. And they don’t recognize and a lot of people still don’t recognize the emotional and deep attachment that we have for our animal companions, many of us. And so I just think this is an evolution. And, and I think it’s important that we take the time to make those spaces available for people to express the deep connection that they have with their, with their lost companions. So one of the things that we’ve done here is we’ve started doing regular celebration of life and remembrance for our animal companions. So it’s a, it’s a Saturday morning, where we have a community wide open Everybody say, essentially memorial service to remember the life and, and, and the times that we had with, with our animal companions, whether they had fur scales or feathers, it’s that doesn’t matter, that connection is still real. And so we honor that we create a safe place for people to say yes, this was a deep meaningful relationship. And, and I feel pain in the loss. And to be in a space where people feel it’s okay to say that and to share their stories and to be around people that are feeling similar things and are telling similar stories. Find that very powerful and very healing. So this is something that we’ve been doing quarterly. And thanks to the Dean of the College of Veterinary Medicine, Dr. Borgeson. And I’ve been talking to her and we plan to continue this. This process we’re still working on frequency in the future. But the next one is actually coming up on the 13th of April. Down here and in Pullman at the Elson S Floyd Cultural Center. So things are shifting. And we need to find those places where we’re able to share openly our love for our companions, and it is available and we need to be doing with

Angela  

Yeah, are you aware of other schools around the country who have a program similar to yours?

Scott 

Um, I don’t know of another veterinary school that has somebody here essentially full time. I do know that Oregon State has a veterinary chaplain that comes in last I saw it was twice a week for four hours at a time. I know that Tufts has a campus chaplain who comes down to the veterinary school one day out of the month. Last I saw and I think I just saw something recently that I may get this wrong but I think it might be UPenn has been a chaplain I have not been able to. I have not had the time to explore that and, and such but I’m at the point where I need to go out and reach out again. So I’ll be doing that.

Angela  

It must be one of your goals for this new association that you’re getting off the ground. Tell us more about that.

Scott 

Yeah. So the American Association of veterinary chaplains. I’m looking at this as being a professional membership organization to support folks in terms of, you know, essentially empowering veterinary chaplains to support the human animal bond with advocacy, education and community building. And in that process, it’s important to make those connections. So, you know, we’ll be reaching out very soon we’re moving into the operational phase now. So I will be reaching out very soon to all of the players and all of those different communities that I mentioned pet chaplains, animal chaplains, etc. And let them know that we’re here. And that our goal is to bring people together to share and to build this as a true profession. Like I say, right alongside, you know, hospice chaplaincy, corporate chaplaincy, police chaplaincy, et cetera. And, and just get recognized clearly in that manner.

Angela  

Will it be an umbrella organization for all animal chaplains or just specifically veterinary?

Scott 

It would certainly be open to all. And I’ve tried to be fairly clear about my definition of, of what that looks like, as a veterinary chaplain. And if people want to accept that particular label, that’s fine. But I think that we would have something certainly to offer to anybody who, who serves in and serves any one of those three pillar communities. We have, you know, education and networking and resources for all those folks.

Angela  

How does one go about becoming a veterinary chaplain?

Scott 

Well, that’s a great question. So if you wanted to be a chaplain for human medicine, that’s actually a pretty substantial road. And that’s where I started, right? I mean, I, I went to seminary, I got my master divinity degree, I did it in into religious chaplaincy. And I could have followed down the path then to become a sort of board certified chaplain for human medicine. I realized that that was not my calling. And so now, right now, there are several venues where you can get some training in animal chaplaincy, pet chaplaincy, etc. And there’s no governing body. This is not led to, you know, this is not a licensed Avenue or anything like that. So what I’m doing now is I’m starting to look at various organizations who do education, and see what kind of education they provide across the three pillar communities. And, and right now, there’s a program in animal ministry through the caring Consortium, and Reverend Sarah Bowen. That looks fairly comprehensive. I know that people have looked at the Unitarian Universalist animal ministry program. And I have yet to get into the details of that. But pretty much you want to look for a program that that has exposure. From my point of view, you want a program that has exposure across all three pillar communities, and gives you a good solid theological grounding. me spend some formation time trying to figure out who you are spiritually. There’s a lot of time in seminary spent on that, which was actually hugely valuable for me. And, and so looking for those sorts of things is is good, I think down the road, I could see WV chap, actually doing certification, you know that you’ve had a certain amount of you’ve gone and you’ve gotten education through certain venues. You have, you know, certain amount of time and experience in doing what you’re doing a practice you’ve done a unit of CPE that’s Clinical Pastoral Education. That’s one of the stepping stones on the way to, to board certified chaplaincy and human health care. But there’s a lot of value in that process. So if there were a CPE program that were designed for public chat chaplaincy, which actually I, I was fortunate enough to be able to do that. I have one CD unit in, in public chaplaincy, which I actually did here at the veterinary school. So, you know, once they have that then being able to say, Yeah, we will certify you certify you as a veterinary chaplain under Wi Fi chap. And I think there’s some value in, in having somebody that’s sort of saying, okay, these are, this is what you need to be able to, to what you need to know what you need to be able to do.

Angela  

What can a hopeful veterinary chaplain look forward to as far as a rewarding experience in what you do?

Scott 

Yeah, so that’s gonna be very personal and very different for everybody, right? So for me, if I leave a conversation, or I leave a situation, if it’s with a patient, where the stress level is reduced, the, the anxiety is reduced, the pain is reduced, the suffering is reduced, then that’s a win for me. And that, and that lifts me and unfortunately, that happens most of the time. And sometimes, it’s a real challenging situation where something’s going on, that’s not great. And you have to dig a little deeper. So for example, I remember meeting a client once who was in the waiting room, and they were waiting on their dog who was having, I think chemo, for cancer and, and the client was in a really pretty good mood and, and they seemed really positive about what was happening with their companion and, and, and seemed in a really good place. So I started to sort of bring the conversation to a close, so we’d normally do and, and then they went silent. And then they looked at me and said, You know, I have the exact same cancer that my dog has. And so I’m seeing my future being laid out before me. So all of a sudden, our conversation took a different tone. And spent a little time with them and, and you know, and part of it is just meaning making, you know, can we make meaning of what’s going on what we’re experiencing in our lives? And, and can we find some good in the challenges? You know, when we’re knee deep in mud and slogging through the swamp, is there something still good that that we can pull from that, that helps inspire us and helps us move forward? And so that’s a conversation I think on but I think on, even though it was a heavy conversation, I felt like I really served that person that day. Yeah. And so that lifted me.

Angela  

There certainly is great reward in bringing comfort to people who are so stressed out. I know, like, as much as I’ve done training in grief and pet loss grief. We’ve had a couple of rough weeks here at the Chez Bella, not with Bella. But you know, grief? Grief can be really confusing and overwhelming. And to just be able to send someone home with a little bit of comfort has to fill your cup a little.

Scott 

And it does, it does without a doubt.

Angela  

Do you perform rituals and ceremonies for the animals? In addition to the celebration of life that’s coming up?

Scott 

Yeah, so I really respond to the requests of the people that I’m with. So I haven’t done anything extravagant. Most of what I do is laying a hand on their companion and saying a prayer for them prior to going into surgery. I always you know, if their companion is ill, they’re not just in for like, you know, a wellness check or something like that or whatever. You know, I’ll offer to put them on my prayer list and then I’ll do that.

Occasionally, clients will ask to actually pray with them in the waiting room. I’m happy to do that. But we haven’t really done any other sort of rituals, but I would be receptive try to be responsive to anybody who had something that they wanted to do. That we could actually do.

Angela  

And do you offer support outside the clinic?

Scott 

Um, so … yeah, yes and no, not. It’s not it’s not like planned, but it ends up happening sometimes. Certainly, I’m on call 24/7 here. So if there’s somebody who has an emergency, you know, in the middle of the night, and, and they really would benefit by having a chaplain, you know, the staff can call me and, and I’ll come in, and I’ll, I’ll do what I can. But it turns out that we still have a phone number at the University for a grief support line that no longer exists. Yes. And so. And of course, once it’s out there on the internet, it’s really hard to, to get that down. And I’ve had a couple of unexpected phone calls where people don’t we have a chaplain over at the veterinary school and it’s been forwarded to me from occurs, I’m presuming the main switchboard, so. So occasionally I do I do some of that. But I prefer to do things face to face if I can. Because we lose so much information, if we just hear a voice, let alone if it was just the written word.

Angela  

How do you take care of yourself?

Scott 

Yeah, so I have my own spiritual practices that I do. And, and there are times when I will have had a, you know, a conversation that, that still has a hold of me, and I’ll need to go off and I’ll need to spend 10 or 15 minutes, doing some form of meditation or something, to just sort of ground myself and sort of wash away that, the hole that, that that has on me, spiritually or emotionally. But I need to do that self care regularly. And, and, and that’s, I think that’s important for everybody. I think when we get so wrapped up, and we’re feeling anxious, and we just want to feel something else, and we do diversion, watch TV, eat, you know, drink, whatever. That’s not really helping us. And so you really need to find something that will help cleanse what’s going on, you know, even if it’s just a five minute walk outside. It’s amazing what timeout in the sun and the breeze can do if you’re quiet. Can you allow it to do its work, if you enjoy what you’re experiencing at the moment, and allow that to wash over you that can be very powerful and very cleansing. But it’s different for everybody.

Angela  

Are dogs our most divine beings?

Scott 

Yeah, I’m gonna have to say no, I think that we’re all equally divine.

Angela  

Ah, okay, fair enough. Except cats. They’re a little on the evil side, are they?

Scott 

You know, you may have that perception and that’s a very personal thing. And I’m okay with that. But that’s not my belief.

Angela  

What is one last piece of advice you can give our listeners about comfort, veterinary chaplaincy, anything?

Scott 

You know, I think the most important thing is to honor what you’re experiencing. If you’re experiencing pain, if you’re experiencing grief, if you’re experiencing spiritual discomfort recognize it, honor it, and treat it with love. Because if you don’t, then it just becomes one more, you know, naughty, painful little thing that you’re trying to squirrel away inside and, and that’s just not good for anybody. So be good to yourself.

Angela  

Thank you so much for joining us. It was so great to hear your story.

Scott 

It’s an honor. Thank you for inviting me.

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