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The Belfast hospital chaplain who helped devise surgical gowns to suit patients of all faiths



Rewarding role: chaplain Don Gamble, who is based at the Ulster Hospital

Rewarding role: chaplain Don Gamble, who is based at the Ulster Hospital

Chaplain Don Gamble talking to a patient at the hospital

Chaplain Don Gamble talking to a patient at the hospital

Chaplain Don Gamble

Chaplain Don Gamble

Artistic family: Don’s wife Ann with daughters (from left) Chloe, Emily, Julia-Rose and Alice

Artistic family: Don’s wife Ann with daughters (from left) Chloe, Emily, Julia-Rose and Alice

Rewarding role: chaplain Don Gamble, who is based at the Ulster Hospital

Northern Ireland's first centre for pastoral education has just opened at the Ulster Hospital with Don Gamble at the helm. The Newtownabbey man (51), who lives with wife Ann and four daughters, reveals how he came to help design a modest hospital gown for patients of other faiths.

A dedicated chaplain has taken his pastoral care role in the Ulster Hospital to a whole new level. Lead chaplain Don Gamble passionately believes that in the same way physicians have to be trained to heal the body, chaplains have to be trained to heal the mind.

And thanks to his dedication, the days when chaplains quietly ambled in and out of hospital to chat to patients are gone as he has established the service as a department in its own right within the hospital.

Last month, with the support of Northern Ireland Healthcare Chaplaincy Association, and under the standards of The Association of Clinical Pastoral Education (Ireland) Don opened Northern Ireland's first permanent Regional Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) centre for pastoral and spiritual care, education, ministry and research in the Ulster Hospital.

He has also extended the chaplaincy service to Lakewood, which is a secure unit for adolescents in Bangor.

To achieve this goal he has spent the past year commuting around 20,000 miles to Dublin and Cork, often on his motorbike, to become qualified as a supervisor in CPE.

The internationally accredited centre opened in April and is currently running its very first course for chaplains.

He has also created the first "modesty" hospital gown for patients whose ethnic origins do not allow them to go for surgery with certain parts of their body uncovered.

On top of all this he has also recently introduced the shop mobility service to the hospital and helps out at St Matthew's Church of Ireland in the Shankill in Belfast.

A father of four girls, Don is married to Ann who gave up her job as a goldsmith to be at home for their daughters. Ann has just returned to work launching a new business, Ann Getty Designs, making bespoke jewellery.

Their girls all have artistic talents which their dad is happy to admit came from their mum.

Chloe (24) is a drama graduate who hopes to work in costume design for theatre and TV; Emily (21) is studying for a degree in arts and festival management with dance; Alice (18) is at Belfast Royal Academy and has just completed her A-levels which included art, and youngest daughter Julia-Rose (15) is preparing for her GCSEs at Ballyclare Secondary School.

Initially, when he was ordained in 1991, Don had planned for a career working in the church with the hope of one day leading his own congregation.

He started working in St Michael's Parish in the Lower Shankill in Belfast when he had his first experience of chaplaincy at Crumlin Road prison from 1991-1995.

It was a fascinating introduction to the role which he has since gone on to put his stamp on. "Working in the prison was an incredibly interesting insight into human nature. I was meeting people at the lowest ebb in their lives," he says.

"I found there was a very grey line between being in prison and not being in prison.

"When you listened to their stories and experiences you realise it can be very easy to end up in prison, if life takes you through certain circumstances and experiences.

"That was a big learning curve for me as before I saw it as something that was very black and white. It made me realise that people can end up in prison through no fault of their own.

"A lot of them were sorry for what they had done and then you had others who were not sorry for what they had done, but were sorry they ended up in prison."

Don was also involved in outreach work in inner city Belfast. It meant coming out of parish ministry to work full-time in the community.

The "church planting" scheme was designed to find new ways to connect with people.

He helped open the Dignity Thrift shop, a barber shop and furniture shop in Carlisle Circus.

This also gave him a heart for helping people and he was happy in 2000 when again he was asked to take on chaplaincy work, this time in three hospitals.

He soon realised, much to his surprise, that he had found his true calling. He says: "It is very different from what I had planned to do.

"I always thought I would become part of a parish and help develop a church and the work of the parish. I had no notion of chaplaincy - it wasn't on my radar but unexpectedly I really took to it."

Initially Don worked across three sites - Belfast City Hospital, the Regional Cancer Centre and the Ulster Hospital.

It was when he became lead chaplain in the South Eastern Trust in 2013 that he decided to study for his global chaplaincy qualification which has led to him transforming the service.

The course focused on training chaplains to be more aware of how patients are feeling when they are talking to them.

With no agenda, the chaplain's role as Don now sees it is to gently guide patients to finding their own spiritual solutions.

He explains: "It is not about imposing what we think on them but helping patients who are often scared, lonely, nervous or worried. We are simply guiding them to use their own inner resources to find answers to their spiritual distresses."

Don compares the approach of chaplains to that of a doctor.

In the same way that doctors will use their skills to help, he says chaplains use their own observations to decide on the best way they can reassure and support a patient.

"The whole hospital is about holistic care and looking after mind, body and spirit and it is all connected," he says.

"A patient might have a physical illness but they might also have a spiritual or psychological issue that affects how they feel and that's where we come in.

"We are professional chaplains and we are part of the multi-disciplinary team at the hospital."

It was through his CPE training, which is ecumenical, that Don learned about the issue of modesty facing some people with different religious beliefs.

He worried that in some ethnic minority groups, the standard hospital gown used for surgery would compromise their religious beliefs.

In a project that involved working with many departments within the hospital and which took over 18 months of research and development, he devised a new hospital "modesty gown".

He explains: "With the old gown, which is a very short surgical garment, you and I wouldn't be offended to have our forearm showing or our ankles but it can be offensive for other religions.

"I ended up working with 21 different groups within the trust and it was something that grew very large, from the surgeons and their needs to the ladies in the laundry and sewing room.

"We had to look at the modesty needs of the different religions here in Northern Ireland now and the result was a three piece garment.

"There are bottoms which are a bit like pyjamas and that caters for the Hindu faith who would be uncomfortable if their ankles were visible.

"In the Muslim faith they don't want their forearms to be on show and that was a bit more of a challenge as the surgeons and anaesthetists need access to the forearm during operations.

"We were stuck at that point on how to give them access while keeping the patient's arm covered and it was our sewing room ladies who came up with a drop sleeve with a bell cuff which could be velcroed on and off.

"We also have a headscarf which would meet the modesty needs of different religions including the Jewish faith.

"It was very complex and it took 18 months to produce. And now when people are admitted to the hospital and they ask to see the chaplain, we will offer them the option of the gown. It is all about respect for human dignity."

The Ulster Hospital is the only one offering the new modesty gown and Don is convinced it is something that all hospitals could benefit from.

Today, through the new centre, this dedicated chaplain is training others in his profession to provide a new type of service to patients in hospital to meet their needs regardless of their religious backgrounds.

He sums it up: "Our role is to help meet the religious, spiritual, pastoral and cultural needs of patients and their families and carers and the staff in the health service.

"It is so worthwhile and gives us a lot of satisfaction when we work with a patient and help them to come to terms with their diagnosis.

"I would like to say how fantastic it is to be part of the South Eastern Trust where the ethos is about learning and developing what we do and I've had so much support in developing the gown and also setting up the clinical pastoral education centre."

Tony O'Hara, senior manager of patient experience at the trust, said: "Don is a motivated individual who has a personal interest in learning and developing chaplaincy services to meet the 21st century.

"Don sees his role of chaplaincy services as much more than the religious aspects of care, for example ministering to the dying. Don's personal drive to modernise chaplaincy has seen the development of the Regional Clinical Pastoral Education Centre at the Ulster Hospital.

"His role covers many aspects of the patient's journey through the hospital from birth to death with all of their individual cultural and religious beliefs met."

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