For the greater good: Alumnus Tim Ford is bringing changes to palliative care

By Anthony Langley

“I didn’t even know that [chaplaincy] was an option for me,” says Tim Ford (M.S.’02/AHP), staff chaplain for the Thomas Palliative Care Unit at the Virginia Commonwealth University Massey Cancer Center. “One day in [graduate school], a professor said, ‘Some of your classmates are thinking about becoming chaplains,’ and I said, ‘We can do that?’ It was eye-opening.”

Ford, a Buddhist chaplain, began to study the teachings of Buddhism after graduating with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland. Realizing he wanted to study the practice academically, he enrolled in a graduate program Naropa University in Colorado, founded by a Buddhist teacher in 1974. It was during the latter half of his studies there that he first experienced chaplaincy.

“A friend and I decided to intern as hospice chaplains that semester,” he says. “If I hadn’t, I would have never discovered how much I loved the work.”

He completed a master’s degree in religious studies focused on engaged Buddhism at Naropa, but opted not to follow the traditional Buddhist studies path, which would take him next to a doctorate degree. Instead, Ford decided he wanted to train as a chaplain and enrolled at the VCU School of Allied Health Professions to earn a master’s in patient counseling with a chaplain certification concentration.

During his studies, he worked with Massey, home to one of the nation’s flagship programs for palliative care, a specialized type of medical care for people with life-limiting illnesses. Palliative care providers focus on providing relief from the symptoms and stress of the illness to improve quality of life for patients and their families. Ford’s experiences in hospice care and the one-on-one connection he could have with his patients drew him to the field. When he graduated from VCU in 2002, he initially returned to hospice care in the Richmond, Virginia, community because there wasn’t a palliative care chaplain position at the university at the time.

“Even though I went off to do hospice, I still kept in touch with the friends I had in the palliative unit,” Ford says. “When they finally did create the chaplain position, I was first in line.”

In 2006, Ford joined Massey’s Thomas Palliative Care Unit, becoming the nation’s first full-time palliative care chaplain. In addition to counseling patients, Ford is an instructor in the School of Allied Health Professions’ patient counseling department and works, as part of Massey’s research team, to push the profession forward.

“If we found barriers that stopped us from helping a patient, we’d publish our materials to gain insight from others, and likewise, when we found something that worked, we wanted other universities to be able to try it out as well,” Ford says. “It wasn’t enough to be bedside with one patient. We had to work empirically, objectively and consistently.”

As the palliative care field has evolved and adopted a more clinical approach, Ford briefly considered focusing on performance improvement at the unit but changed his mind after realizing he’d only be helping one system. By broadening his focus, he could alter his entire field and bring advances to the palliative care units across the country.

To achieve that goal, Ford applied for and received one of eight prestigious Chaplaincy Research Fellowships in 2016 through the Transforming Chaplaincy Program supported by the John Templeton Foundation and coordinated through Rush University. The fellowship allows him to complete a two-year, research-focused Master of Public Health, which he is earning at VCU’s School of Medicine.

While his overall research focuses on clinical spirituality and how it can affect health outcomes, Ford is working alongside Brian Cassel, Ph.D., director of analytic services at Massey, to study advanced care planning and the financial impact palliative care can have on families.

“The great thing about working with Tim is that he already has the characteristics necessary to become a successful researcher: innovative thinking, attention to detail, persistence and the desire to work collaboratively on multidisciplinary projects,” Cassel says.

This semester, the pair plan to publish several articles about the issues at the intersection of public health and end-of-life care, as well as about public knowledge and attitudes toward advance care planning.

“By providing the public with resources about advanced planning, they’ll be better informed about the choices they have available and have autonomy over the care they’ll receive,” Ford says. “I’m glad to be a part of this, and I know great things will come from it.”