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Integrative health team member highlight: Jim Bonomo

Jul 24, 2016


Jim Bonomo has been providing chaplaincy services to patients, families and staff at VCU Massey Cancer Center and Children’s Hospital of Richmond at VCU (CHoR) for more than 17 years. Though he has transitioned to part-time, his brightly colored socks and ties and comforting presence are still a fixture in Massey’s Dalton Oncology Clinic and the Pastoral Care Department at VCU Health. Jim spends the majority of his time listening and providing support, so we thought it would be nice to hear from him for a change. In this Q&A, we asked him about his approach to chaplaincy, his career, faith and spirituality and the unique challenges brought about by cancer.

Can you tell us about your role as a chaplain?

My job is listening. Not just listening, but reflective listening in which you try to pick up on the story behind the story. We all hear, but sometimes it’s what’s driving the conversation that might be the most important factor for a chaplain to know. And if I can’t provide the right kind of help, then I try to bring in a team member that can, such as a psychologist or social worker.

The question I ask each person I work with is: “What get’s you out of bed each morning?” For some people it’s family. For others it’s their job. For some it’s their future prospects or maybe faith and religion. That’s basically what I listen for.

I try not to give advice. I try to provide a way of finding whatever it is that can help a person through what they have to face. It sounds evasive, but it’s true. Sometimes people request advice and I give an opinion based on my experience, but generally I try to give people a sense that they’re safe with me.

Why are the services you provide important?

I give people a forum to discuss things that they can’t with others, particularly family members and loved ones. When people first are diagnosed with cancer, they go through many emotions and different feelings. A lot of times there is anger, but not necessarily at the disease. Many times that anger is predicated upon something much deeper in their lives and the diagnosis brings that to the surface. This can make it hard to confide in those closest to them, and since our care team only has a limited amount of time they can spend with each patient it’s important that there are other resources for emotional support. As a chaplain, I have the gift of time.

I’m fortunate. I can leave here and go home to a peaceful environment to someone who loves me. Many of our patients are not only dealing with chronic illness, but they also deal with dysfunction and chaos in their personal lives. Our staff is the same way. They’re putting in long, hard hours at the hospital and they all have their own lives and problems just like everyone else. I don’t make a distinction between staff, patients and families—we’re all people.

What are some of the unique challenges you face?

When you’re sitting in a specialist’s office and you get the diagnosis of a chronic illness—and for many of our patients that prognosis is not good—it gives you a whole new sense of what is important, what needs to be done in the situation and how it affects those who love you. You need the right attitude to get through the treatment process, and it takes a lot courage to step up to the plate.

One important part of our training in the Pastoral Care Department, which really applies to all health care providers, is learning how to sort and leave our own baggage at the door. For me, that is theology. Sometimes when I give people my name and occupation, they are immediately turned off. Some have had a bad experience with organized religion. Others have experienced religion as a stumbling block rather than a pathway. So the very word “chaplain” can conjure up negative meanings.

One of the first things that I tell folks who I sense might be against religion is that I’m not a religious person, I’m a spiritual person. There’s a big difference. Some people have religion, but may or may not be in touch with their spiritual journey. Religion at its best should be a pathway to a deeper sense of one’s spiritual life. At its worst it becomes a stumbling block for growth. I try to make that very clear in the process of people getting to know me. I’m only interested in someone’s religious experience if it’s important to their growth as a human being.

Also, we all have our own social and racial prejudices. Some people come to clinic with a great deal of anger about things in their own private lives, social lives, economic lives or racial lives that are very painful, and I may represent something other than what they perceive as helpful. Even so, I find most people that I’ve encountered are open to me.

I’ve never said to a patient “I understand,” because you really do have to walk in a person’s shoes to know what they’re going through. However, my own health was brought into question a year ago when I was diagnosed with a form of pulmonary fibrosis. Even at my age, as I sat in the doctor’s office it brought my mortality into sharper focus. That has given me a new perspective on what our patients go through.

What led you down this path in life, and where are you in your own spiritual journey?

I was raised in a family environment that wasn’t overtly religious, but there was an underlying sense of something greater than ourselves, which we called God. Through my personal religious practice, I was compelled to go to seminary.

I’ve had years of formal training in theology. I went to the University of Pittsburgh—my hometown—and St. Francis University in Pennsylvania for my undergraduate education. For my graduate work, I studied at Catholic University of America in D.C., and I’ve done further study in spirituality at the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley, California and places like the Washington Theological Union in D.C.

I came to Richmond because my theological background was very progressive, or liberal. Pittsburgh, where I was ordained, was very conservative. I heard of a young bishop named Walter Sullivan in Richmond. He was the youngest bishop in the country at the time. He felt very strongly that the Church was not the clergy, the Church was the people. He sought to empower Catholics with the awareness that clergy were servants to them. I was drawn to that progressive vision that was not afraid to face real issues.

I was clergy for most of my adult life and did years of work in parishes also taught in a Catholic high school. This might surprise people, but I got to a point in my spiritual journey where the religion I was raised with and the religion that meant a great deal to me as a younger person was not meeting my needs as an adult, so I had to find a new way for my spiritual path.

So I’ve been on both sides of the fence as far as organized religion goes. People frequently ask about my denomination. I tell them about my background in Catholicism, but if I get to know them a little bit then I tell them more about my spiritual journey. I only reveal about myself when I feel it can be helpful to someone else, otherwise I try to keep those things within my personal purview. The bottom line is people in our clinic are facing a form of cancer or blood disorder. My job is to to make that person’s journey a little easier or more hopeful.

How do you take care of yourself?

I ask our staff the same question.

There are several things I try to do. I love the arts—things like classical music, ballet, and theater. I think in this world one has to find and create places and spaces of beauty and meaning in their lives. For me, the arts have always been a vital part of that, as well as gardening—it’s therapeutic for me. I usually go home in the afternoon and work out in the garden for an hour or so.

Also, I practice a form of prayer called centering prayer, which is simply a form of meditation. I’m an introvert by nature so I require a lot of private time. I try to set aside quiet time to center myself, because I think that’s where we find ourselves and our relationship to our spiritual side. If I slack off, which I do, I find myself building up with stuff. An example was when I was working in pediatric oncology. Most kids do pretty well, but when one doesn’t it’s horrible for everybody. I remember a time in pediatric oncology when I was extremely busy and making excuses for avoiding centering, and one evening I broke down and started to sob uncontrollably. I sat down and realized it was the kids that didn’t make it that piled up in me and it all came pouring out. That was a wake-up call for me, and now I try to make time to focus on myself.

How do patients get in touch with you or another chaplain or staff member in the Pastoral Care Department?

I spend a lot of time in the clinic, and often I will try to initiate conversations with people. Others come to me after talking to their nurse or another member of their care team. People can also reach out to the Pastoral Care Department directly by calling  (804) 828-0928.

Written by: John Wallace

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