Thrive by IU Health

September 02, 2021

Chaplain climbed ladder to emergency medicine as a firefighter

Chaplain climbed ladder to emergency medicine as a firefighter

Eric Williams wasn’t always a chaplain, but he’s been familiar with emergency care for a number of years. That care extends to both patients and IU Health staff members.

By IU Health Senior Journalist, T.J. Banes, tfender1@iuhealth.org

When his sons were little, they’d ask Eric Williams: “Daddy, why are you always at the hospital in the middle of the night?” His sons are now ages 14 and 17 and Williams is still at the hospital but for a different reason.

His mother, Molly Williams, was part of the first class of women to attend seminary in the Episcopal Theological Church. His grandfather and two uncles were Episcopal priests. Williams grew up in Chicago – just blocks from Wrigley Field – and studied philosophy at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio. He continued with graduate school at Miami of Ohio. Two other moves followed – to Canton, N.Y. and Kentucky –where he took jobs in higher education.

It was those last two stops that eventually lead Williams to Indiana - where his dad, Peter Williams, once attended Shortridge High School. That series of twists and turns also lead Williams to seminary. In New York and Kentucky, he was introduced to emergency response – something that would test his limits.

He became a firefighter while also working in education. Twenty-one years ago, he left education, and followed his fiancé, Cindy, to Indianapolis. They married, had two sons, and Williams became a hospital chaplain.

“When I was working in education people would suggest that I’d make a good chaplain. Even with family in the ministry, I never thought in a million years I’d become a chaplain,” said Williams. But when his son was born at IU Health University Hospital in 2004 he met a chaplain that suggested he look into clinical pastoral education.

He finished the clinical and eventually switched careers. In 2011 he became an adjunct chaplain at first working a couple of shifts. That turned into five shifts and then residency training with IU Health Methodist and Riley Hospitals.

“I did it backwards. Most people go to seminary first and then residency. I went to seminary after residency,” said Williams. Before he started seminary he made a list of the ways the career change would impact his family.

“I needed my wife to say, ‘you can do this,’” said Williams. “She said, ‘you are happier being a chaplain than you are doing anything else.’ Being a chaplain makes me light up inside and I needed other people to help me figure that out. I am fortunate to have the support of my family, parents and other chaplains.”

That support has become essential during the past year, as IU Health serves a patient load of those infected with a deadly virus. Like many health care workers, it’s pushed Williams to think creatively and strategically in the specific areas he serves - emergency medicine and emergency cardiovascular critical care.

“I do a lot of intentional conversations with staff about how they’re doing. In the past year, I’ve also done more ethical conversations with a focus on their well being,” said Williams. He also gets a lot of questions back, “How are you doing?”

New initiatives have grown out of conversations and conditions. One of those initiatives is what Williams calls a “structured moment of silence,” following a patient death. “Sometimes in the room and sometimes outside the room. We pause and feel our feelings and we do that together,” said Williams.

Another practice is an immediate debriefing process where the question is asked: “How do you feel physically and emotionally?”

“Each person has a different image they are carrying in their head. It’s important that we hear our colleagues and find ways to cope. That needs to start before we go home at the end of our shift,” said Williams.

For his own care, Williams spends time talking to other chaplains. When he’s away from the hospital he enjoys family time, mountain and road cycling, cooking for his family and writing poetry.

“I started writing poetry in 2012 as way of processing how I’m feeling,” said Williams, who now averages at least one poem a day. “In the past year, it’s really helped when you are focusing on so much grief.”