Chester and Joan Fairlie have been married for 39 years. But in some ways, their spiritual journey is just beginning.
The New London attorney and his wife are part-time chaplains at the nonprofit Lawrence + Memorial Hospital, a role that evolved from Fairlie’s longstanding compassion for crime victims and the couple’s involvement at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Niantic.
"We have found most of our patients are in distress because of something else in their life," Fairlie said, referring to his volunteer work at the hospital. "The medical problem brings those other problems—whether emotional or spiritual—to the surface. That’s where chaplains come in."
He continued, "These consults [with patients] can sometimes be just a casual visit with encouraging conversations or they can be a very profound and powerful experience with a patient who is gravely injured, facing end-of-life issues."
Fairlie started his career in the late 1970s in criminal defense. It was through this practice that he initially became aware of the extreme impact that being a crime victim can have on someone’s life. He had transitioned to a personal injury practice by 1990, but still watched with interest as the state moved toward adoping victims’ rights laws, which were enshrined in the Connecticut Constitution in 1996.
Still, Fairlie continues to believe there is too little understanding of the sort of acute and long-term trauma that violent crime victims experience. Because of his professional background — and not because of any family tragedy — he became head of the New London chapter of Survivors of Homicide, participating in panels on topics such as "Responding to Sudden Loss," where he spoke on how to help people "find a new normal" after losing a loved one.
He also got a first-hand look at all sorts of physical traumas when he made close to 400 runs over five years as a volunteer ambulance crew member.
"That is part of the potential of legal work—we can establish a practice and then blend new types of matters into our practice as we explore new interests," Fairlie said. "Sometimes, those new interests can evolve into a new focus for a career."
He said his wife, Joan, has helped him in all of his efforts. "In many ways, we have traveled new paths together."
The path to being hospital chaplains began about two years ago. Since then the couple has completed two, eight-month intensive training programs. Upon graduating as non-ordained lay ministers, they were drawn to the idea of working in a hospital. "We both found this was an environment that was very fulfilling," said Joan Fairlie, who retired after 37 years in the insurance industry.
So far, the Fairlies collectively have helped to counsel more than 1,000 patients and family members in distress. Once they arrive at the hospital, they work separately. Joan regards helping patients and family members deal with the dying process to be a special and moving experience. Her husband is more drawn to the fast-paced work done in the Emergency Department.
"He loves it—you never know what you’re going to see or accomplish," Joan Fairlie said.
One of Chester Fairlie’s most powerful experiences was counseling family members of a man who had been brought to the Emergency Department after trying to commit suicide. "They told me their dad was sick," Fairlie said. "I felt so terrible that these kids had almost lost their father…When I went to his room, I held the man’s arms and cried as we talked about God blessing people with second chances.
"A couple days later, he met me at the hospital with his wife and children. He remembered everything that we had said [and] told me he would never consider suicide again."
The Fairlies often work with doctors and nurses, learning about diseases and hospital procedures. But they also serve as chaplains to staff members. "I consider it a privilege to be part of that very intense side of life—to be part of someone’s emotional or spiritual process," Chester Fairlie said.
Although Fairlie is a member of the Episcopal Church, he regards spirituality to be "multi-faced and multi-cultural."
"We explore with the patient what is troubling them, and then we explore whether they have any faith traditions," he said. "We structure prayers so that they conform to their types of prayers, whether it be within the Christian faith, Judaism or Islam… The thing that has been very educational for me is that in times of crisis, people ask a lot of the same questions—it really helps to see how much we all have in common."
On June 4, Chester Fairlie will hold a training session at the hospital, titled "Crime Victim Support Training for Emergency Department Staff, Clergy and Chaiplans." It will be held at 7 p.m. at the hospital’s Baker Auditorium, free of charge. Pre-registration is recommended by contacting Chester Fairlie at firstname.lastname@example.org.