MIRROR Works: BEN'S SUCH A GOOD CHAP.. Chaplain's spiritual health role.
NO one was more surprised than Ben Rhodes himself when a brief school trip to the local parish church transformed his life.
"There was something about the vicar there that made me feel very welcome," says Ben, 36, who is now an ordained minister working as a hospital chaplain in two busy London hospitals.
"Until then - I was about 12 - I hadn't really been to church. My family weren't church goers.
"After that school outing I persuaded my mum to start coming to church with me and by the time I was 14, I was baptised and confirmed."
Despite his early religious experience, he decided to read physics at university, much to his parents' delight.
Ben, originally from Sutton Coldfield, West Midlands, explains: "Dad was a scientist as were many others in my family."
During his course Ben continued to attend church and at the end of his degree decided to pursue the Church of England selection process.
"Understandably my parents were concerned but in time they saw it was what I wanted and now they are 100 per cent supportive.
"The selection process is very in-depth and takes about 18 months. It is completely tailored to each person. After all they're dealing with someone's vocational calling."
Taking time off before his threeyear training, Ben did a variety of jobs. His placements while at college included the Cara Trust, a charity working for people affected by HIV.
"It was here I began to realise I was more interested in the pastoral side of the job, as opposed to working in a parish. I wanted to work in the healthcare industry." As part of his training, Ben spent time working as a curate in a London parish but even then he was able to spend some time at a Romford hospital in Essex.
"I finished my curacy in 2001 and got a job in Lewisham, South London. My path was set," says Ben.
Three years ago he moved to the bustling chaplaincy at Barts and The London hospitals.
As senior Church of England chaplain, he is part of a large team represented by Muslim, Catholic, Jewish, and other Christian faiths.
With nearly 780,000 patients attending the hospitals every year, the spiritual needs of the City and East London hospitals are diverse.
"We work on rotas to ensure 24-hour cover and emergency callouts," says Ben. "Two-thirds of my day is spent with patients. The rest is taken up with conducting services, staff training, counselling staff and, of course, paperwork!" He continues: "I give spiritual care to patients, staff, family and friends, and anyone visiting the hospital. As part of the healthcare team I offer support and counselling. I'm not here to judge - I walk alongside people.
"A vast part of the work is making sure we value a patient's humanity - this can be as simple as protecting their privacy.
"People who are ill are often away from their normal environments - they're separated from their support system. Every time I visit a patient I get their consent to be there. That alone can make a big difference to a person's dignity."
An important and challenging side of Ben's work is providing end of life care.
He says: "This is about talking, listening and offering whatever spiritual care is required by the patient, their family and staff."
He continues: "My job is not to tell people what to think. It is to be by their side, to listen to their questions and be a part of their searching for meaning. These may be about death or other existential issues."
When Ben personally finds it tough, he calls on his own faith for strength.
"I'm in a privileged position to be with people at such times in their life. I meet people from all different backgrounds and in a vast array of situations. We cover some of the wealthiest and most deprived areas in the country."
Giving so much of himself can be exhausting. "When I'm not working I switch off completely," says Ben, who lives in South London.
"I work out at the gym two or three times a week. I watch films, and I make sure I spend good time with family and friends."
Despite his busy work and social life, Ben has still found time get himself a post-graduate diploma in counselling and he is now studying for a Masters Degree in the Psychology of Religion.
He says: "I also lecture on a degree course about chaplaincy and healthcare policy and, like all C of E chaplains, am involved in the Hospital Chaplaincy Council.
"As the world changes and the NHS evolves there is so much more we can do within the chaplaincy. I have a very special role - to be alongside people and hear their stories. They put a great deal of trust in me."
FURTHER info at www.nhs-chaplaincy-spiritualcare.org.uk/
GOD'S WORK: Ben does his rounds on the hospital wards