Caregiver Profiles: Chaplain Sam Ortega
Chaplain Sam Ortega and some of the many chaplaincy support staff at Mills-Peninsula
For Chaplain Sam Ortega, a work day is likely to be a blend of tenderness and joy. He may be called upon to support a patient and family at end of life, then share in the celebration of another's dramatic recovery.
"My work gives me a panoramic view of the whole life experience," the chaplain says.
"Part of my role is to respond when a person comes to our emergency room (ER), experiencing a heart attack or stroke," Ortega explains. "We're there for the families. Things are happening fast. It can be very scary. We help contact other family members and, if they want, reach out to their own clergy. If the patient is going to the intensive care unit, we help orient the family and try to ease their anxiety."
Ortega says his team of 20 chaplain volunteers makes the program a success. Some are professional clergy; others are community members who undergo up to three months of training. Our Lady of Angels Catholic Church has a program that includes daily visits to support Catholic patients.
In a program called No One Dies Alone (NODA), 28 additional trained volunteers provide comfort and support during the last days or hours of life.
"Sometimes I go into a room of a patient near the end of life and see there are no flowers, no visitors," the chaplain says. "Some patients have no family, at least none nearby. For others, the family can't be with the patient all the time.
"We try to learn about the patient's background and interests, books or music they like. The volunteers may read to the patient, hold their hand, play their favorite music, and, if the patient is able, engage in conversation and share life stories." Sometimes the chaplain and his team can facilitate reconciliation of long-estranged family members.
"We try to find ways to bring people back together," he says, recalling a patient who, near death, disclosed he hadn't talked to his daughters for more than 10 years.
"He let us contact them, and the daughters showed up immediately. One told me it wasn't a big fight that split the family. She said 'we just stopped talking to each other.'
"Although the dad was very near death, he woke up when he heard his daughter's voice. It was a beautiful moment," the chaplain recalls. "It brought peace and closure to both the dad and daughters. They needed to say goodbye."
Tender moments like these are balanced with stories of dramatic recovery and healing.
"I actually see more joy than sadness," Ortega says. "I see people in the worst condition - with tubes and IVs. Then I see them get better and go home. Sometimes I see them later in the grocery store, and they introduce me to their families.
Ortega joined Mills-Peninsula in 2005 following eight years as a U.S. Navy chaplain. He earned his bachelor's and master of divinity degrees at Berrien Springs, Michigan, then served as pastor for churches in New Mexico and Texas for six years.
His military experience included serving as command chaplain for the hospital at the U.S. Marine Base in 29 Palms, California, then on the USS Cowpens and USS Milius battleships, including tours of duty in the Persian Gulf.
Ortega decided his work in hospitals was most rewarding, and he hasn't changed his mind.
"I love my job," he says. "I know that people who come to our hospital receive the best medical care. My team contributes spiritual support and comfort. I get to meet new people every day from different cultures and religions. I learn a lot from them and am continually inspired by their amazing courage and faith."
For more information about Mills-Peninsula's chaplaincy program, call 650-696-5960.