You are the owner of this article.

A hospice calling - Heyman HospiceCare chaplain had a "sidways boot" to find his ministry

  • ()
Alan Fuller

Heyman HospiceCare Chaplain Alan Fuller. Photo courtesy Ryan Smith.

“I always had a sense of my calling into ministry,” Fuller said. “It was in high school I first started working with the youth and music programs at my church. I knew God was leading me into that role.”

After graduating from Shorter College in 1986, Fuller said he worked in various youth and music leader roles, but strongly felt the call to become a minister.

“I decided to enroll in the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary,” Fuller said. “Seminary is different from other fields of study — it requires 90-100 hours of classroom work as opposed to the usual 45-60 hours any other Master’s program might. I enjoyed it, but it was demanding work. I graduated with a master’s degree in Divinity in the year of 1991.”

A sideways boot

Fuller said that he served as minister for quite a few Southern Baptist churches before things changed in an incredible way.

“In 2003 I was in-between churches and looking for something to do,” Fuller said. “An acquaintance from Floyd Medical Center called me and asked if I would be interested working as a Chaplain for their hospice group, they had a vacancy.”

Fuller said that though it had not been something he had planned for in his career, that maybe this would be something to keep him busy until a church opened-up for him.

“God sort of booted me sideways into this work,” Fuller laughed. “I had thought of this as an opportunity to do something new, a new ministry. I never realized the work would fire on so many cylinders for me. I get so much fulfillment from my work now.”

What Fuller had thought was a short-term solution has been his long-term career. 

How to make hospice work

“My grandfather was my first experience ever with hospice,” Fuller said. “He was 80 years old and diagnosed with leukemia. He told the doctor he didn’t want to do any treatments and the doctor agreed that he would do all he could to make him comfortable.”

Fuller said that was 27 years ago, and he still appreciates how they helped the family and his grandfather through the situation.

Fuller said hospice care is not always just for the patient, they are also there to support the family if needed.

“We are there to walk the patient through the last leg of their journey with their loved ones, friends, family or whomever needs us,” Fuller said. “Each case has its own particular set of trials and tribulations.”

Fuller said that as Chaplain he is there to provide spiritual support for the patient, family and friends. Other caregivers are there to help with other aspects of each case.

“Some of my most difficult cases have been when doctors or nurses have had a loved one go into hospice,” Fuller said. “It is hard to separate your professional knowledge and just accept what your heart and gut are telling you. Sometimes you must tell them ‘just be a husband, wife, daughter or son’.”

Fuller said it is harder for those professionals because they are so often in the caregiving role — and it is hard to let go.

“Occasionally someone will say to one of us that they could never do what we are doing because it is so sad,” Fuller explained. “My wife even asked me after the first year if I was OK, she was concerned all the grief I was around would be too stressful.”

Fuller said what surprised him is that he was OK, he wasn’t stressed, he felt fulfilled. What he had thought would be a stop-gap was what and where he was supposed to be all along.

“There are lots of things I could never do,” Fuller laughed. “I could definitely never be a middle school teacher. I know that would have made me mentally ill. I am doing what I am supposed to be doing.”

Fuller said he agrees the work does take a special kind of person. It takes a lot of adjustment and learning how to separate from the families’ emotions, so you can help them.

“God prepares us for what he calls us to do,” Fuller said. “The people who work in hospice do it because they have an understanding of the need and a drive to do the work.”

Wake-up calls

“One of the side effects of working in hospice is you experience things with people sometimes the same age as you and you see warning signs,” Fuller said. “Many of our patients are dying of cancer and heart disease — something you might be not have been so aware of before.”

Fuller said it makes you more aware of your own health and you might pick up on things you need sooner than someone else.

“Over time we are all affected in some way by this work — pushing us to grow as a people as we face new situations,” Fuller said. “It makes you think about things very differently and you realize there is no fear in all of this. It makes you plan ahead.”

Fuller said that he has learned that there are some very important things that all people should think about and discuss before they are in a bad situation.

“If you make your own decisions about your health care it takes all the family angst out of situations and essentially, when it happens, the grief process,” Fuller explained. “It is very important to have a plan.”

Fuller said that his advice to all adults are to sit down and make out a will.

“Establish what you want before you cannot communicate it yourself,” Fuller explained. “You never know what or when something could happen.”

Fuller also said it is important to pick a person — whether it be family or friend — who will be your trusted representative.

“If you do not pre-choose the person you want it will go in order of spouse if you are married, if you are unmarried it will be your parents or kids or siblings,” Fuller said. “It can complicate things.”

Fuller said he feels it is very important we all exercise our legal right to make our decisions while we can.

“As a caregiver they are going to try to save you no matter what — and that means NO matter what,” Fuller explains. “It is better for us as caregivers to know if you want to be resuscitated no matter what, or if you want to pass on in certain situations.”

Fuller said his own experience with his grandfather spoke to this very thing.

“My grandfather knew it didn’t make sense to do treatment that would most likely kill him sooner, and he decided that he wanted to pass peacefully and comfortably with his family,” Fuller explained. “Preparing ahead makes decisions like this within your control.”

Fuller said that though these decisions can be hard, it helps your family also to be able to truly grieve.

“Ultimately in these situations when we experience extremes of emotions we become different people,” Fuller said. “Better people with a deepened character.”

What is retirement?

At 59 years of age, Fuller said he has no plans of ever seeking a real retirement. What does that mean?

“My 85-year-old mother still works as a secretary for her church 20 hours a week in my hometown. Even today she can work circles around other people half her age,” Fuller laughed. “I am just like her! I will work until I cannot work.”

Fuller has been married to his wife Renee for 32 years. They share two children- a 29-year-old son and a 27-year-old daughter — both are happily married.

Fuller said while he plans on continuing to work, he is looking forward to eventually welcoming grandchildren to the family.