Healing hands | Issaquah-Swedish chaplain meets spiritual needs in illness and death

The light-footed chaplain slips open a curtain and pokes his head into Room 3306. His lips form a greeting, but before his first syllable is born, the patient snaps, “Are you a doctor?”

The light-footed chaplain slips open a curtain and pokes his head into Room 3306. His lips form a greeting, but before his first syllable is born, the patient snaps, “Are you a doctor?”

Rich Weyls’ visit is unexpected. He begins to explain, but halfway through his response, the patient interrupts again with news of her mother’s recent death.

Soon the memories of her mother slide into the deepest traumas of her life, each more horrifying than the last. Forty minutes pass, nurses scuttle in and out of the room, before she allows Weyls a moment to speak. Taking her hand, he pushes past an array of bloodstained stories to ask about her present feelings.

She’s angry and sad. But why recall incidents buried by 40 years of life? Outside her room, blips pass endlessly across a heart monitor screen. Hospitals can feel threatening. She’s probably scared.

Positing to leave for the time, Weyls says, “Can I wish you health and peace?”

“Whatever you want,” her voice calm but careless.

“That’s what I want for you.”

The tenderness in his answer finishes the lesson. Her eyes tear – someone does care.

Healing the spirit

Chaplains have long had a place in American hospital care, but in a modern scene the priests who once evangelized the sick and dying have since transformed into experts for the spiritually suffering. Swedish Medical Center in Issaquah is no exception. The presence of its chaplain is so crucial, the hospital’s accreditation required someone like Weyls to be on staff.

His worn leather shoes pass through the emergency room and in and out of intensive care all day long. The work is practical for doctors, who tend to focus on the physical needs first. He also helps calm patients and families who sometimes overwhelm hospital staff.

Weyls was sipping coffee in the cafeteria, when a page came across a speaker around his neck. An anxious nurse asked for help. Family had been trickling in all day to be with an elderly woman on life support, and it reached a climax.

He assured the nurse he would come by again. It was the big crisis of the day, he said, tossing his empty cup into trash.

Once a doctor delivers the bad news about a patient, Weyls is often called upon to help families work through their decisions about life support.

Physicians take as many questions as they can answer, but when it comes to sorting through the meaning of life, he’s the resident expert.

Chaplains are not just for the dead.

They help figure out the other aspects of a person’s life that are being impacted by illness, said Dr. Janice Connolly, who worked with Rich for a few years in Swedish’s Palliative Care.

There was once a man under Connolly’s care who wasn’t on good speaking terms with a child. No one thought he’d talk to a chaplain, but Weyls worked with him to bring healing to the relationship, she said.

“With the grace of Rich, he was able to unload some of his pain,” she said. “I think it was really powerful.”

Pastor to the faithless

Julita Fitzgerald’s frail body was buried beneath a mound of blankets, when her voice elevated just above a whisper to tell Weyls about her nightly prayers.

Since learning about the cancer, the Catholic had taken to reciting “Our Father” and three “Hail Mary” prayers nightly.

Weyls set down a thin book on the bed. A few letters had rubbed off the gold-foiled title, Ministry with the Sick, where he clasped it in his hands.

A Roman Catholic priest for most of his 25-year career, Weyls has since been ordained in the Episcopalian Church, which still maintains many of the same trappings and prayers of Catholicism.

The prayers were well known to him, so placing a light hand on her head, he led her in reciting them. His eyes were closed beneath thin glasses while she worked the words from her chest.

Later he would contact a parish and have a priest sent to her home to deliver holy communion. No longer a Catholic, he couldn’t perform the rite.

He had to stay true to his new faith.

The Swedish network has 10 staffed chaplains, including a Rabbi and a Buddhist. Like Weyls, they see people from all faith backgrounds. It’s considered unethical for a professional chaplain to proselytize or try to influence people’s spiritual beliefs or medical decisions.

Most people in this region don’t come with any particular convictions, but it doesn’t mean that they don’t have life questions, said Becca Parkins, manager of Swedish’s spiritual care.

Those facing death can ask profound life questions. The most common is whether or not their life made a difference, Weyls said.

Like a counselor, he’ll help them unpack an answer, but never give one himself.

“I don’t let the question of religion ever get in the way of spiritual care,” he said. “I want them to do whatever they need to do to find peace.”

The Call

Weyls first felt the call from God to become a priest when he was 14 years old, but he didn’t embrace it until his grandmother’s passing over a decade later.

A Catholic priest ministered to her faithfully during her last days and was able to reconcile her with the church. When she died, he performed the funeral.

The priest’s kindness opened Weyls up to the call he had once run from, and at 27 he enrolled in seminary.

“I finally had the courage to respond.”

As soon as he began working as a priest, he stepped into volunteer chaplain rolls at a hospital. He had once been accepted into medical school, but chose instead to accept a full scholarship to study labor economics. He never stuck with economics, but he never let go of his interest in medicine.

In 2006, he left Roman Catholicism over doctrinal differences and embraced the Episcopalian church. Theologically liberal, he believes there are many paths to God. His is Jesus.

“I believe in Hell,” he said, “but I don’t know if anyone is there.”

Admittedly his beliefs about spirituality limit his temptation to proselytize his patients, but chaplains from conservative theologies manage to uphold the same ethics, he said.

For religious leaders, chaplaincy can be much more satisfying work, because it focuses almost entirely on building relationships with people, said Parkins from spiritual care.

“It’s in those moments in despairing that we really look to help from God or how we experience a higher power,” she said. “It’s in those moments in crisis that we find connection or peace or faith.”

Becoming a Chaplain

Qualifications for professional chaplains are almost as much work as becoming a physician. The profession has a few different certification groups, including specialized ones for Jews and Catholics.

Below are the requirements from the Board of Chaplaincy Certification

  • Bachelor’s degree
  • Graduate theology degree, typically a Master’s of Divinity
  • Four units of Clinical Pastoral Education alongside a residency
  • Ordained or commissioned to do ministry
  • Ecclesiastical endorsement by a recognized faith group
  • 2,000 hours of chaplaincy work
  • Vetted through the BCC’s certification committees


Rich Weyls is the chaplain at Issaquah’s Swedish Medical Center. An expert in spiritual care, he is treated as a member of the hospital team. He’s pictured in the hospital’s chapel, a serene place to meditate.