Bedside stories with hospital chaplain

Chaplain David Byrne
Hospital chaplain David Byrne.

David Byrne provides a quiet but reassuring presence as lead chaplain at Northwick Park Hospital.

It is a place where people of all faiths come together and, strangely enough, where David will often put religion aside in his day-to-day work.

He doesn’t wear a clerical collar or cross unless required and shows no outward sign of his Church of England faith.

“The two most important qualities of my work are compassion and listening,” says the 69 year-old who grew up in London’s East End.

David, whose multi-faith team includes more than 20 volunteers, sees up to 14 patients a day as well as staff who can talk about anything worrying them in or outside work.

He might be called to speak with a terminally ill patient, support a mother who has lost a child in labour or console a member of staff personally affected by an incident.

“Clinical staff focuses on patients’ physical condition while we look after their spiritual wellbeing which is simply how they are feeling emotionally. The majority of people want to talk when they are hurting inside and opening up is a healing process in itself.”

David has listened to and reassured countless people during his 18 years as a hospital chaplain at the trust.

He recalls bringing together a brother and sister who hadn’t spoken for 20 years and fulfilling a bed-ridden father’s wish to see his daughter and son-in-law exchange  wedding vows before he passed away.

“I conducted a bedside service with about 20 family members,” said David who says his greatest joy is meeting people and lending an ear when often at their lowest ebb.

He also recalls a cancer patient who wanted to talk about a secret he had kept secret for more than 50 years.

The man had been a naval rating during the Second World War and had picked up the presence of enemy submarines on his radar. He instinctively ordered British warships to intercept forging the attack command in the absence of an officer.

He watched in horror as all three ships were sunk by German U-boats.

A military inquiry and court-marshal followed and the veteran didn’t speak about the incident again until he confessed to David.

“It must have been an awful l burden to carry all those years. His wife was with us and he had never told her.”

So how does David marry the measured clinical environment of a hospital with the emotional and spiritual need of some of its patients?

“There’s room for both. We’re all people at the end of the day.”