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Chaplain Michael Gilbert Offers a Listening Ear and a Caring Heart

Writer / Christy Heitger-Ewing

Photography Provided

Ten years ago, Michael Gilbert owned his own engineering firm. He traveled all over the state selling parts and gears to automotive and aircraft manufacturers such as Allison Transmission, Rolls-Royce and Cummins. One day Gilbert was chatting with a man from his church, who asked if he would be willing to visit some individuals who were not able to make it to church. Gilbert agreed, and his weekly schedule began to shift. After picking up a list of names and addresses, he would visit a manufacturing plant, then head over to a nursing home, followed by another manufacturing plant and then a hospital, and so on. 

“I felt like I had two milk routes,” Gilbert says. “After six months, I came to the realization that visiting these people brought me such joy. The payback far exceeded what I got from the sales and engineering job.”

He started thinking about how he could find gainful employment in this field, and decided to enter a seminary program. He earned a certificate in ministry studies before being accepted into a master of divinity program. He eventually earned a master’s degree in psychotherapy and faith, and graduated from seminary in 2012. When the job of chaplain opened in 2016, he was happy, as he always had his heart set on working at IU Health.

Every day Gilbert visits specific patients or staff members who have directly requested his presence. These individuals usually do so when they are feeling lonely, scared, confused or conflicted. Perhaps they have received a troubling diagnosis and are overwhelmed by feelings of hopelessness, anxiety, grief, or anger, and need a calming presence to help them navigate those feelings. Gilbert is happy to do so. 

“When you’re ill in the hospital, it often leads you to reflect on your spirituality,” he says. “Patients will ask, ‘Why me?’ or ‘Where is God in all of this?’ This is my opportunity to come alongside a patient and help them flesh out their values, beliefs and understanding of life’s events.”

He doesn’t do all the talking, however. In fact, a big part of his job is providing an empathetic ear. 

“People are their best book,” Gilbert says. “You can let them turn the pages and tell you about themselves.”

Perhaps they just want communion, a blessing or someone to read them scripture. His goal is to try and see every patient at least once or twice while they are hospitalized. 

Gilbert spends 50% of his time with the staff and support team, which includes doctors, nurses, technicians, kitchen staff and those in environmental care services. He’s adamant about ministering to the hospital’s support teams, because he wants them to feel comfortable coming to him with their own needs.

During Gilbert’s final interview for the job at IU Health, Doug Puckett, the hospital’s president at the time, told him, “If you want to be the chaplain of my hospital, you’ve got to be the chaplain for every single person on this property. I don’t care if they’re cutting grass, washing windows, making beds, cooking food, are in bed or out of bed.”

Gilbert gets to know people by using many of the same techniques he used when he was in sales.

“People share when they feel comfortable with me,” he says. 

Gilbert typically asks about connections to community, to family and to God. 

“There are so many who don’t have a lot of go-to people they can contact, so I try to delve into helping people lift up their spiritual resources,” he says.

He defines spiritual resources as whatever brings one joy. That might mean going to church, but it also may be reading a book, taking a walk or being with family. For Gilbert, it’s drumming.

“When I’m stressed out, my spiritual resource is to go the basement, put on some good music and play drums for an hour or two,” he says. “My wife will ask if I’m doing okay, and I’ll say, ‘Yeah, I’m all prayed up now.’”

Gilbert maintains that spiritual care and medical care go hand in hand.

“They work together like gears,” he says. “Without one, something is missing from the other. That’s why I’m so happy to work in a hospital, because it gives me the opportunity to fill that void wherever needed.”

Through the years, he has learned how to read a room, meaning when he enters a hospital room, he observes whether the curtains are drawn and the lights are off, as well as if the patient is watching television, on the phone, and is awake and alert. 

“I can read many things in just a few seconds that enable me to determine how the visit is going to unfold,” says Gilbert, who often opens conversations by asking a patient what they would be doing if they were at home instead of being stuck at the hospital. “It opens up a myriad of thoughts. If they say, ‘I’d be taking care of my dog,’ or ‘I’d be working in my garden,’ I have some insight into their world. Their answer tells me how their illness is impacting their life.” 

Another part of Gilbert’s job is comforting families when their loved ones are reaching the end of life. 

“When the passing is expected, it’s a little easier as opposed to a sudden death from a traffic accident or heart attack,” says Gilbert, noting that sometimes he doesn’t know what he’s walking into. “Much like a police officer’s job, everything seems routine and then all of a sudden the rug gets pulled out from under you.”

In the event of a medical emergency, Gilbert tries to determine how he can best help his patient, their family members and the hospital staff. 

“The unknown can be a little bit terrifying, but sometimes in the most difficult situations, something inside me turns on like the Energizer Bunny, whether it’s 2 p.m. or 2 a.m.,” he says. 

Gilbert says although he is ordained in the Christian church as a chaplain, he’s nondenominational. 

“I’m open to all faith traditions,” he says. “Our beautiful chapel, which is available 24/7, is open and affirming to all faith traditions, including Christianity, Islamic, Judaism and everything in between.” 

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