A small sign hangs above Ondria Hitt’s desk at Trios Southridge Hospital in Kennewick.
It says, “Listener on Duty.”
That’s not Hitt’s official job title, but it could be. It fits.
As a chaplain, Hitt helps patients and their families through tough times — in some cases, the toughest of their lives.
She’s there after unexpected traumas, after scary diagnoses. She wades into worry, anxiety and fear, figuring out how she can help.
She asks questions, in her calm and soothing way.
She prays, if that’s what the patient wants.
She listens. Deeply listens. She sees that as a sacred task.
“Everybody is so different and unique in their circumstances, even if they have the same diagnosis. My hope is that a person I visit feels cared for, they feel heard, they feel acknowledged — that what they’re going through matters, even to somebody outside their family,” Hitt said.
“The medical side is very important. But I hope that, with the chaplain, they feel something else (also) is met.”
‘I appreciate those tears’
Hitt, 42, has been assigned to Trios Health full time for almost two years.
She’s an employee of The Chaplaincy, a nonprofit that provides hospice care, chaplain services and grief support in the Tri-City area.
It has a roster of 16 chaplains. Some work in its hospice program, some work per diem on call or as fill-in chaplains, and some — like Hitt — work by contract in facilities such as Trios, Kadlec Regional Medical Center, the Benton-Franklin Juvenile Justice Center and the Tri-Cities Cancer Center.
For Hitt, each work day is different. She moves with the flow of the hospital.
Sometimes a patient asks to see a chaplain, or a staff member makes a referral.
Other times, Hitt comes to patients on her own, checking the hospital census for the longest stays, for the patients who need her the most.
That was the case on a recent day.
“Good morning, how are you?” Hitt said, popping her head into the room of a woman in her 80s with pulmonary disease.
The woman, who’d been in the hospital for a few days, was sitting in a chair next to the bed.
She wanted to talk. She started sharing her story — discussing her health, her hospital stay so far, her family.
She talked about her grandchildren. About her Christian faith. About friends she’d lost, including one who’d just died of cancer.
“We were about (like) sisters, all those years,” the woman said, her voice catching in her throat.
She talked about wanting to go home, back to a normal life.
Hitt nodded along, listening. When the chaplain spoke, her voice was gentle.
She asked if the woman wanted to share a prayer.
The woman said yes. Tears gathered in her eyes, and Hitt reached out and took her hand.
They bowed their heads.
Later, as they said their goodbyes, the woman said, “I’m sorry for getting teary eyed.”
Hitt shook her head. “You know what? I appreciate those tears. I get tears, too, sometimes,” Hitt said. “Sometimes things just touch us.”
‘What a good chaplain can do’
Hitt earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology and then went back to school for a master’s of education in counseling several years later.
During that break in schooling, she lost her mother to cancer and also endured her own cancer diagnosis and treatment.
That personal history informs her chaplain work, although she doesn’t often bring it up with patients, she said.
Her visits are about them, not her, she said.
While completing her master’s degree, Hitt interned with The Chaplaincy, in its hospice program.
She eventually was hired on as a social worker. But she got the itch for something else.
“I would hear the chaplains around me at The Chaplaincy, sharing their stories. I thought, ‘They’re going to a deeper place,’” she said. “That’s what was calling me.”
Hitt went on to complete clinical pastoral education training through The Chaplaincy.
She worked as a per diem chaplain for a while, eventually taking the Trios slot.
Dr. Wayne Kohan, who leads Trios’ new palliative care program, which aims to improve quality of life for seriously ill patients, works closely with Hitt.
He said she brings the right touch in interactions with patients and their families. “As physicians, we tend to be fairly concrete people. We think about the nuts and bolts — your blood count says this and so I’m going to give you that,” he said. “She brings more of the human side of it.”
There’s no doubt the work can take a toll. Hitt said it helps her to remember that her job isn’t to fix every problem. Sometimes that’s not possible.
She thinks of the biblical figure Simon of Cyrene, who was made to carry Jesus’ cross. “Simon is only there for a moment, to help Jesus for a moment,” Hitt said. “I feel like that’s my role. That helps me at the end of the day — to know that God never asks me to be everything for everybody. But he asks me to be there for a moment.
“That’s what a good chaplain can do.”
‘How are you doing in your spirit?’
After visiting with the patient with pulmonary disease, Hitt knocked on another door.
She found a woman in her 70s who’d been admitted after a stroke.
Physically, the woman seemed OK. She was alert and composed.
But, “how are you doing in your spirit?” Hitt asked.
The woman talked about feeling isolated. She said she believes in God, but still feels afraid.
“They tell you to trust God in everything and give your problems to him, but it’s hard. I don’t know how to do that,” the woman said.
She talked about her family. About the stress she was feeling.
Hitt leaned in. She listened. She offered encouragement.
She asked about sharing a prayer.
The woman agreed, and Hitt asked what the woman would like to pray for.
The woman said she needed strength.
“Dear God, I thank you so much for (this patient) here today, and that she is closer to getting home and finding answers for her health. Lord, in her story, I hear lots of feelings that are hard to walk with and journey with,” Hitt said. The chaplain asked for comfort and support for the woman. For the strength the woman sought.
Again, tears came — streaking silently down the patient’s face as Hitt spoke.
When Hitt got up to leave, the woman smiled.
She confessed that she’d hoped the chaplain would say a prayer.
It was exactly what she needed.
A daily ritual
In about three hours on that recent morning, Hitt talked to at least a half dozen patients and family members — some long conversations, some shorter.
After visiting with the woman who’d had a stroke, Hitt stopped by the emergency department.
She talked with the family of a young patient. With the family of an elderly man.
In her daily rounds, she talks with staff members, too, checking in on them.
At the end of each day, when Hitt gets in her car to go home, sometimes her own tears fall.
A hospital can be a happy place — where babies are born, wounds are healed, illnesses are overcome.
But, it can be a sad one, too. On tough days, Hitt might take the long way home, giving herself breathing room, transition time.
She has a ritual to start each day, as well. She prays.
“Lord, your story unfolds in every minute and every second. I know that, I trust in that,” she said on a recent morning, her head bowed.
She prayed for the patients and families she’d meet that day. For the staff.
For comfort and peace inside the hospital’s walls.
Then she stepped out into the hallway to begin.