Thu. Jun 13th, 2024

Facing a major life crisis? Anh is here to help

Tyler Mitchell By Tyler Mitchell Jun4,2024
Anh Nguyen is making her rounds on a busy ward in the Victorian Heart Hospital.
She stops to visit Michael Salter, who is recovering from major heart surgery.
“Hi Michael, how are you? It’s been quite a journey hasn’t it?”

“Yes, it has been in just a few short days,” he replies.

A woman in a pink jacket sits talking to a man in a hospital room.

Spiritual care worker Anh Nguyen and patient Michael Salter. Source: SBS / Sandra Fulloon

“The spiritual care conversation usually focuses on what gives people meaning and strength during illness or uncertainty,” Ms Nguyen, 53, explains.

Mr Salter says uncertainty has come into sharp focus in recent weeks.
In April, he was flown by helicopter from his home in the NSW-Victorian border town of Albury for life-saving heart surgery in Melbourne.

He had suffered an aortic dissection which is defined as a tear in the inner layer of the aorta, the large blood vessel branching off the heart.

A man in a pale grey t-shirt sits smiling at camera.

Heart surgery patient Michael Salter. Source: SBS / Sandra Fulloon

“I’m someone who had taken pretty good care of myself and all of a sudden I was just about gone,” he says.

It’s a challenging time for the 66-year-old, as he recovers in a private room, gazing at the sporting fields below his hospital window.
“Seeing people playing soccer and football, you realise how fragile [life] is. I’ve got to think about and understand that life changes at this point,” he says.

This is where spiritual care worker Anh Nguyen steps in, helping patients grapple with some of life’s big questions.

A woman in a pink jacket sits in a garden smiling at the camera.

Anh Nguyen at the Victorian Heart Hospital. Source: SBS / Scott Cardwell

“Oh, certainly it helps,” says Mr Salter. “To have someone available who has a broader perspective on those issues than you have personally.”

Ms Nguyen is among a growing number of spiritual care workers in Australia.
It’s a role defined as holistic care that supports people approaching the end-of life, as well as during a medical crisis.
“What is most challenging for you at the moment?” Ms Nguyen asks.
“The sense of the unknown,” replies Mr Salter. “From here on the challenge is to understand what comes next and what I am able to get back to and supports I will need and how well I can recover. “

Spiritual care is a growing focus for Ms Nguyen’s employer Monash Health across its 40 locations. Its spiritual care team is in demand from patients living through a medical crisis, or after a difficult diagnosis.

A man in a hospital gown sits in a room, talking to a woman in a pink jacket.

Anh Nguyen (right) talking to patient Andrew Jackson. Source: SBS / Sandra Fulloon

“If patients are religious, usually they will request a representative to come in and do a prayer, a blessing. Or, if end-of-life they require last rites,” she explains.

However, in the latest Australian Census, 10 million people or nearly 40 per cent of respondents ticked ‘no religion’. It is one reason many hospitals now offer non-religious spiritual care.
“When it comes to end-of-life, there may be a lot of unfinished business, and the patient would like to reset their priorities to focus on the short time left.
“So, for patients who are non-religious, I provide spiritual emotional support. That means we have a conversation about what gives them meaning, what gives them strength, what gives them comfort during this time.

“And by listening, we provide a safe space to release that distress and emotion, and give them strength to move forward.”

According to the Spiritual Health Association which advocates for best practice nationwide, outcomes improve for those who receive spiritual care during a crisis.
“In a recent survey, 65 per cent of Australians who have stayed in hospital and received spiritual care have a high level of satisfaction with their health journey,” says Craig Exon, the association’s CEO and a former spiritual care worker.
“As well, more than 50 per cent of those surveyed would welcome spiritual care in hospital during a crisis,” Mr Exon says.

Ms Nguyen has worked for more than a decade in hospitals and prisons, and says she developed listening and caring skills, growing up outside Saigon during the Vietnam war.

A Vietnamese family sitting on a sofa smiling at camera.

Anh Nguyen (second from left) with her family in Vietnam. Source: Supplied / Anh Nguyen

“There was a lot of hardship. When the war ended [in 1975], I was five years old. We moved into the countryside where my dad built a house with mud and coconut leaves. The floor of the house was all muddy, all muddy,” she says.

“We were always hungry and we were struggling. My parents had been through a lot and had their own issues. My mum’s parents were executed by the military when mum was nine years old, and right in front of her.
“My dad’s parents both died when my father was really young, about 10 years old as well.
“So, [growing up] I held back a lot of emotion and just tried to support my parents.”
Arriving in Australia at the age of 21 with limited English skills, Ms Nguyen went on to build a career in Information Technology.

But her father’s death in 2000 became a turning point.

A woman in graduation robes standing with a man.

Anh Nguyen with her dad at her graduation. Source: Supplied / Anh Nguyen

“My dad had lung cancer, and when he passed away I was devastated. My dad was the whole world to me. I spent a lot of time in silence reassessing my life,” she says.

“At that time, I sought support from a grief counsellor. I shared my journey with them.
“I realised that I had a lot of grief in my life: from losing my father, from leaving my country, and coming here with a lot of uncertainty.”

Ms Nguyen went on to complete a diploma in counselling and finish post-graduate psychology studies. She says helping people living through crisis has given her new purpose.

A woman in graduation robes holding a diploma and smiling at camera.

Anh Nguyen at her graduation in Melbourne. Source: Supplied / Anh Nguyen

“My job is not just a job, it’s a calling. Holding a patient’s hand during this journey, the most difficult journey, is something really rewarding, something that is priceless,” she says.

“And I feel very grateful for that, for the opportunity to be with them in that moment and to see, to witness, to foster their strength and resilience and hope.”
Monash Health’s manager of social work and spiritual care, Michael Splawa-Neyman says Ms Nguyen brings a lot to her role.

“Ms Nguyen is very empathetic, a fantastic listener and very kind. She makes people feel comfortable. And that’s a key skill for a spiritual care worker.

A man in a suit jacket smiling at camera while sitting in a garden.

Michael Splawa-Neyman is manager of social work and spiritual care at Monash Health. Source: SBS / Scott Cardwell

“While some patients have supportive families, some have nobody, no friends at all, and they are very isolated,” says Mr Splawa-Neyman.

“So, the spiritual care role is to come in and listen to patients at a time they might be very fearful, very scared, very frightened.”
Despite a recent decline of one million followers, Christianity remains Australia’s top religion at almost 44 per cent of the population.

However, with rising migration from Asia and the Middle East, Australia is becoming more religiously diverse. Mr Splawa-Neyman says that requires a different approach to crisis care.

A man in a suit jacket sits with a woman in a pink jacket smiling at camera.

Michael Splawa-Neyman sitting with Anh Nguyen. Source: SBS / Scott Cardwell

“We have interpreting services within Monash Health that we use on a daily basis to support patients, to still provide them with that spiritual intervention if they don’t speak English.

“It is a non-denominational approach really, and so much more than treating someone’s physical ailments,” he says.
“Spiritual care means looking at the whole person: their spirituality, their psychological well being, and their emotional well being as well.”
Cardiac patient Andrew Jackson who turned 58 during his hospital stay, says a bedside chat with Ms Nguyen was a blessing.

“I’m not a religious person, so it is nice to talk to someone who’s caring, who provides mental support too. It’s very helpful,” he says.

A patient in a hospital robe sits on a chair and holds up a birthday card.

Andrew Jackson with his birthday card. Source: SBS / Sandra Fulloon

Ms Nguyen says it’s often a mutual exchange.

“I learned a lot from him too. He has a lot of wisdom and I appreciated the strength and courage that got him through [surgery].”
Ms Nguyen says providing spiritual care is also a way to pay forward the gifts she received as a child.
“All my work throughout my life is about honouring my parents, because they made me who I am today,” she says.

“And I feel forever grateful for that.”

Tyler Mitchell

By Tyler Mitchell

Tyler is a renowned journalist with years of experience covering a wide range of topics including politics, entertainment, and technology. His insightful analysis and compelling storytelling have made him a trusted source for breaking news and expert commentary.

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2 thoughts on “Facing a major life crisis? Anh is here to help”
  1. It’s inspiring to see the dedication of professionals like Anh Nguyen in providing spiritual support to patients during challenging times. Their empathy and guidance truly make a difference in navigating life’s uncertainties.

  2. What a heartwarming story! It’s incredible to see the impact that spiritual care workers like Anh Nguyen have in helping individuals find strength and meaning during challenging times. Wishing Michael Salter a speedy recovery and newfound resilience.

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