December 12, 2012
Cedars-Sinai’s chaplaincy program puts spirituality on the medical charts
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Cedars-Sinai Medical Center head chaplain Rabbi Jason Weiner talks with patient Michele Rauch. Photo courtesy of Cedars-Sinai Medical Center
‘I’m here with you’
One day last summer, Weiner stopped outside a room on the fifth floor of the south tower, sanitized his hands with Purell, pulled on some latex gloves, then tapped gently on Michele Rauch’s door. She invited him in, and he slid a chair up to her bedside.
There were no flowers or balloons in the room, though Rauch had already been in the hospital for more than a week. Rauch, 51, was hospitalized for an autoimmune disorder and serious gastrointestinal issues — her 11th admission this year — but at the moment Weiner visited, she hadn’t told her father, a stroke victim, or her mother, who has respiratory problems, where she was.
“When I had brain surgery last year, I didn’t know whether I should talk to my mom about it. She was recovering from surgery, and we were worried about her,” said Rauch, a nurse. “I wasn’t able to lean on her or other people in my family for help, because the focus was on my mom, and now the focus is on my dad, and it always seems the focus isn’t on me.”
With warmth and gentle humor, Weiner guided the conversation with questions. In their 15 minutes together, Rauch talked about her daughter, showed Weiner a needlepoint she just finished — the stitching calms her, she said — and told him about some letters her great-grandfather wrote from Treblinka. She talked about wanting to learn more about Judaism and about the stress of needing to hold herself, and everyone else, together.
Before Weiner left, he offered a personal prayer for Rauch, asking God to relieve her suffering, to recognize the support she gives to so many others and to allow her to accomplish all that she wants. His prayer reflected exactly what Rauch told him, and as he asked her to offer her own prayer, tears welled in her eyes.
Weiner often quotes Rabbi Levi Meier, his predecessor, who served as chaplain at Cedars for almost 30 years, until his death in 2008.
“Rabbi Meier always said that even when a cure is impossible, healing is still possible,” Weiner said. “People start thinking about things and talking about things they never thought about at home, but they are forced to when they’re in a hospital. It’s like every day is Yom Kippur in the hospital.”
Meier, who was the first Jewish chaplain at Cedars, created a vast infrastructure of ritual support — kosher food, Shabbat-friendly elevators and entrances, mezuzahs on every door, opportunities to light candles, live and televised religious services for Christians and Jews, and inspirational classes for patients, caregivers and doctors of all faiths.
But more than that, Schreiber said, Meier made the intersection of spirituality and psychology central to healing at Cedars.
A visit with a hospital chaplain can be different from any other visit with clergy, doctors or loved ones, though a chaplain may have been a stranger to the patient just moments before. Chaplains are trained to focus on active listening, on trying to discern what is most important to a patient and to reflect that back to the patient. Many chaplains say they don’t talk much at all during visits — the words, “Hi, I’m a chaplain,” are often enough to open the floodgates.
“One of the things that I find to be most rewarding is the opportunity I have to help people reframe the way they think about something when they’re really upset,” said Laura Young, a Jewish chaplain embedded in Cedars’ critical care units. “I don’t give them the answer. I let them figure out what gives meaning to their lives so they can figure out their own direction.”
Young trained for four years at the Academy for Jewish Religion, California, the only program in the country where students earn a certificate of Jewish chaplaincy by simultaneously completing a master’s degree in Jewish studies and, in partnership with Methodist Hospital of Southern California, four units of clinical pastoral education.
The Rev. Lester Avestruz has been a priest for 40 years and trained to be a chaplain about 20 years ago. He has been the lead Catholic chaplain at Cedars for the last six years. He said that he has learned that directing his own peaceful energy into a violent or traumatic situation can help soothe a family. He remembers one situation where he was asked to minister to a family that was hysterical after a 21-year-old died violently.
“I couldn’t answer the question of, ‘Why is this happening to my son?’ I had no answer for that. But I tried to harness this peace energy and just direct it, and it worked,” Avestruz said.
George Baghdassarian, a minister trained in the Armenian Apostolic Church, works from 4 p.m. to midnight as the emergency room chaplain. He said he has learned the value of presence.
“I don’t think it’s appropriate to walk into a crazy situation and think you can say something that fixes it,” he said. “All you can say is, ‘This is a really crazy situation, but I’m here with you, with your screaming and your crying, and you’re not alone. And if you need to have it out with God, go ahead, but I want you to know I’m here.’ ”
Chaplains encounter family dynamics at their most stressful, times when “life gets cracked open,” said Peggy Kelley, Cedars’ lead Christian chaplain for just over a year. Embedded in the pediatrics department, she often deals with guilt — parents who believe God is punishing their own past behavior.
But she also sits with children, raw and honest, who inspire her daily. Kids close to death often talk about seeing angels, and they envision heaven. She remembers one cancer patient who said he had a special question for her:
“Do you think there are french fries in heaven?”
Kelley asked the boy what he thought.
“Yes,” he told her. “And ketchup, too.”