JACKSON — Some time ago Judith Schmitt left a hospital patient's room feeling inspired and changed for the better.
She can't remember the patient's name or recollect why he was sick, but she can recall their half-hour conversation about religion and the Plains Indians.
"We had a wonderful talk about belief and faith," Schmitt said. "I walked out of there and felt just great."
Schmitt's life-altering exchange with the man is one of many she has had at the St. John's Medical Center.
As a Spiritual Care volunteer Schmitt heads to the hospital once a week to visit with patients. She has listened to and supported very sick people, welcomed babies to the world and witnessed someone's last breath.
Even though she often encounters grieving families and unexpected tragedies, Schmitt never feels hopeless or sad when she leaves her volunteer shifts. She instead feels compassionate and blessed.
"Sometimes the patients do more for me than I do for them," she said. "You walk out of there and think they are brave and wonderful. They build up your spirits."
But the point of Schmitt's visits isn't to make herself feel better. The idea is to encourage, support and understand people who need it most.
"I feel it's a gift to listen to people and not push yourself on them," Schmitt said. "It's not an ego trip. It's not for you. It's for them."
Schmitt is one of about 20 people in the Spiritual Care volunteer program. Some of the volunteers have been making rounds at the hospital since 1992. Back then they were called lay chaplains.
"I think there are a lot of people out there who don't know what "lay" means," said Kathy Kjellgren, the hospital's volunteer coordinator. "Patients would hear the word "chaplain" and think these people are going to preach."
Although Schmitt is a practicing Episcopalian she doesn't proselytize when she speaks with patients. That's not the intention of the program, she said.
The Spiritual Care program is nondenominational and respects all cultures and religions. And anyone, religious or not, can volunteer.
"On our contact list we have Quakers and Jehovah's Witnesses," Kjellgren said. "And at one point we had a Buddhist."
Though of different faiths the volunteers share one goal: to give patients some sort of spiritual guidance. Sometimes that guidance is listening to a person's needs. Other times it is saying a prayer.
Each volunteer must follow a protocol when giving spiritual care.
When Schmitt makes her weekly trip she first goes to the nurse's station to see if there is anyone who doesn't want a visitor. Then she starts her rounds.
"I knock on the door and walk in," Schmitt said. "I'll introduce myself. I usually start off by asking them how they are feeling and if they need anything."
If Schmitt feels the person she is talking to is need of a prayer, she will ask if it's OK to pray with him or her.
She said a lot of patients are receptive to hearing prayers. It lets them know someone cares, she said.
Reid Jackson received a prayer from a Spiritual Care volunteer when he was being treated for an infection with flu-like symptoms.
He said the man who prayed with him made his stay more comfortable.
"It was mainly a matter of stopping by, seeing how I was doing and offering a prayer," Jackson said. "I don't see how anyone could refuse that."
Volunteers don't always pray with the people they offer care to.
"If they say no, it's fine," Schmitt said. "You can walk out of there and say a prayer for them with hopes the healing process goes well."
Schmitt, like other Spiritual Care volunteers, was trained.
Ben Pascal, senior pastor of the Presbyterian Church of Jackson Hole, is in charge of readying future volunteers. A link between St. John's Medical Center and the leaders of Jackson's faith communities, Pascal was nominated for that role by the Interfaith Group of Jackson Hole.
Each volunteer goes to a daylong training session.
"We teach them the art of visiting people," Pascal said. "A lot is learning about the importance of presence and how to let patients lead the conversation."
Pascal also talks about bedside manner. He tells soon-to-be volunteers not to loom over somebody or sit on a patient's bed.
He also tells trainees it is important to respect privacy and to not focus on the person's condition.
Learning how to lead a prayer is also important, Pascal said.
"It's nice to have tools in your tool belt," he said. "There are great scriptures from the Bible or Book of Psalms that will resonate with people of the Jewish faith, Christian faith or any faith for that matter."
After Pascal informs people of the program's guidelines he puts them in pairs to practice the art of listening.
Once trainees have completed the day of role-playing and mastered program guidelines, they are asked to come back for a short follow-up.
Prepared with the quintessential know-how, beginners enter the next phase of training by shadowing a practicing volunteer.
"You follow three different people on three different days," Schmitt said. "You learn what it is all about, how to approach the patient and what you say to them."
Pascal and Schmitt believe spiritual care is an important part of the healing process.
"I think patients need to know that there is a group here in the hospital that has nothing to do with the medical side of things," Schmitt said. "We just care about them."
Volunteers are required to go to the hospital once a month and to attend a monthly meeting, which is held at noon on the second Thursday of each month.