Medicine and Meaning Part II: Interfaith Chaplain Molly Padgett (SF04)
October 8, 2021 | By Eve Tolpa
“There’s a lot of moral distress in health care,” says Molly Padgett (SF04).
She would know; she’s seen it firsthand. For several years, Padgett has been offering spiritual support to patients and medical providers as an interfaith chaplain.
“It’s an evolving field,” she says of the vocation, noting that her colleagues work in a variety of sectors, including nonprofit, technology, and government. For her own specialty, which is palliative care and hospice, “the training is to support the spiritual and religious coping of the patient in a moment of crisis to find their own inner resources.”
Padgett earned a master’s of divinity from Union Theological Seminary and completed her clinical training for hospital chaplaincy at Mt. Sinai in New York City. After that, she went to work at Bellevue, a trauma hospital in Manhattan. There, as the palliative care team’s chaplain, she served not only patients but also staffers, facilitating debriefs when patients died.
The two years Padgett spent at Bellevue overlapped with New York City’s biggest surge to date of COVID-19 infections. While she saw plenty of patients who were treated and went home, there were many more who did not.
Those circumstances, while devastating, invigorated her and reinforced her professional commitment. “There’s something so empowering about being able to work in the hospital,” she says, noting that during the early days of the pandemic, “we had people who came out of clinical retirement [and] started working in the palliative care teams. It was very positive, really incredible.”
“There was this huge outpouring of support from the community: restaurant owners bringing us meals, the seven o’clock cheer,” Padgett continues. “I don’t know if people realize how much that meant to the health care workers. As a chaplain, you hold it all in at the time, and then later you are like, oh boy.”
During that period, she says, “my role was really helping people. I’d see patients in the ICU, and then I’d call all their families.” She and her team tried to bring those family members into the hospital whenever they could, “suiting them up, putting them in protective equipment. A lot of people were asking, Why is this happening? We’d talk that through.”
In addition to facilitating phone calls and FaceTime sessions between patients and their loved ones, Padgett also engaged in prayer and out-loud poetry reading. Along with religion and science, literature and poetry were the subjects that resonated with her most as an undergraduate, and she finds that storytelling is at the heart of her work. “It’s about helping people identify elements of their story, to help give people some insight into their story,” Padgett explains.
Ethics also plays a big role in these interactions—not in the sense of medical policy, but in terms of individuals and their families. “The whole question of, what does it mean to have a meaningful life? Coming from St. John’s, the ethics conversations are so fascinating.”
Interfaith chaplains don’t impose their beliefs on the people they serve, Padgett says, but “people always want to know what my faith tradition is.” She is a member of the Baha’i Faith, a non-hierarchical religion that doesn’t have clergy. Not surprisingly for a big city chaplain, she has ministered to patients with a variety of spiritual practices; many at Bellevue were Catholics, but she’s also encountered Egyptian Muslims, Rastafarians, and practitioners of many other faiths.
Recently, Padgett moved out of the city to a farm in Princeton, New Jersey, and she’s currently working as a chaplain for a New York-based nonprofit that provides home hospice. “After two years at the hospital, I wanted a change of pace,” she says.
Now she collaborates with nurses, doctors, and social workers on an interdisciplinary team. “St. John’s turned me into a person who is perfect for this,” Padgett says. “We are always having conversations about science and spirituality.”
“The college formed a lot of my thinking and questioning abilities,” she adds. “There’s this idea that we start with a question: Can you tell me, Socrates, can virtue be taught? We wrestle with that for four years—what it means to take responsibility and find your own moral compass.”
As a chaplain, “I’m holding that space to allow people to find that answer for themselves.”