If the chaplains who stand alongside men and women in uniquely demanding careers are akin to saints, then the ones who walk hand-in-hand with those facing the end of life’s journey are akin to angels. One such angel is 58-year-old Harold Otterlei, a full-time hospice chaplain for Legacy Hospice, a division of Legacy Health, in McMinnville, Ore.
The father of one teen and two young adult children with his wife, Kimberly, Harold had faithfully served as a pastor for 22 years. Twelve years ago, however, while pastoring a Foursquare church in Corvallis, Ore., he suffered a massive brain hemorrhage that almost took his life. He recovered, but was left with permanent short-term memory loss. Staff at Oregon Vocational Rehab told him that pastoring might no longer be a viable option. They recommended chaplaincy.
Harold tried going back to work, but soon realized he could not adequately fulfill his pastoral duties. He resigned his position and took two years of chaplaincy training in a program called Clinical Pastoral Education. For several years, he volunteered in a local hospital and with Legacy Hospice. When a full-time position opened up five years ago, he was readily hired.
“Going through this injury opened a whole dimension of compassion for people who were suffering,” Harold tells Foursquare.org. “God took this tragedy and turned it around for good. Also, the mode of working fit me well. I could see a patient, stop and write a report, and go on to the next patient. I didn't have to keep the big picture in mind. That worked well with my short-term memory loss.”
Ministering to those in hospice care requires an intuitive sensitivity and the ability to navigate incredibly delicate issues both with the patient and his or her family. As Harold puts it: “Part of ministry is just showing up, waiting on the Lord, and letting Him lead me by the Holy Spirit.”
This means he first tries to simply gain the patient’s trust. He assesses where he or she is coming from spiritually, and does what he can to spark his or her interest in spiritual matters. He also directly asks what he can do to help.
“Through the initial process of getting to know them,” explains Harold, “I am offering them emotional support, helping them to feel they have a platform for processing what is happening to them as they are facing the end of their life.”
Harold plays guitar and sings hymns to many of his patients. This is important, he notes, especially when the patient is no longer responsive, because the last part of the brain to keep functioning is the part that processes music. Other times, his guitar is an entry point. Patients may not be sure they want a chaplain, but usually they appreciate music, and that gives Harold an in.
“My role is to offer comfort to the patient and let them see hope,” he says. “The hospice philosophy is that our care is not just to the patient, but also to the patient's family. In some cases, I am referred not to the patient but to the spouse.”
The chaplain offers a “closure service” at the bedside at the time of death for family members, if requested. He may also conduct the funeral service for those without a church home. And, of course, before the patient passes, he offers the opportunity for any confidential discussions the patient wants to have.
Hospice ministry is more crucial than many realize. Harold has witnessed fear being vanquished, hope being restored, faith coming to life, as well as reconciliation between warring parties within families.
That’s why he asks for prayer that chaplains would be discerning to know the patient’s real need; that they would have wisdom for how to properly care; and that they would have a “heart of gold” in their capacity to love those in hospice as well as their families. He also observes that many patients have no understanding of salvation and genuinely hope they will simply be considered good enough to go to heaven.
Harold explains that signing up with hospice does not mean a person has given up. People sign up so they may make the best of their last days with family and friends.
“Terminally ill patients need to come on to hospice sooner,” he affirms. “Too often, they come on at the very last moment. They are on hospice for only a matter of hours or possibly one day. They benefit very little from hospice that way.”
Another concern is the caregivers who sacrificially give of themselves to help those in hospice. That’s why Harold and Kimberly, in partnership with the non-profit group Life Impact, purchased a new home a year ago that they desire to use as a place of respite for caregivers and pastoral couples.
It’s clear Harold has never stopped pastoring people, despite the injury that necessitated his church resignation more than a decade ago. His heart for others is the same; if anything, even more tender. His ministry simply takes place in a different kind of sanctuary, one very close to the other side.
This article is Part 3 in a four-part series.
To read Part 1, covering Foursquare Chaplains International statistics worldwide and the profile of a military chaplain, click here.
To read Part 2, about chaplains in the Civil Air Patrol and fire department, click here.
To read Part 4, profiling a couple who both serve as hospital and legislative chaplains, click here.
By: Bill Shepson, a Foursquare credentialed minister and freelance writer in Los Angeles