December 12, 2012
Cedars-Sinai’s chaplaincy program puts spirituality on the medical charts
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Ministering to all
Of course, what heaven or God or spirit means varies for each patient. While Cedars is, at its core, a Jewish hospital — founded by the Jewish community in 1902 and continuing its mission based on Jewish values — it is also a nonsectarian medical center that ministers to a diverse population and employs staff of all races, denominations and many nationalities. About 26 percent of patients are Jewish, 29 percent are non-Catholic Christians, 20 percent are Catholic and 5 percent are other — Muslims, Buddhists or Jehovah’s Witnesses, for instance. A full 20 percent are either unaffiliated, or decline or are unable to state.
Angelina Orduno, 58 and a documentary film researcher, considers herself spiritual but not religious; she was raised by a Catholic mother and an atheist father. Diagnosed with a form of leukemia, she was in the hospital last summer for a risky stem-cell transplant.
Lining every inch of the walls in her room were photos of friends and family, as well as several brooms — symbolic, for her, of her process of sweeping the cancer out, rather than destroying it, along with her tissues.
One picture showed Orduno fit and tan with silky waist-length hair, a contrast to her now-sallow cheeks and the baseball cap she wore to cover her bald head.
Orduno had visited several times with interfaith chaplain Christina Shu, a graduate of the Harvard Divinity School and a candidate for ordination with the Unitarian Universalist Association. Shu makes rounds with the palliative care unit, which is focused on alleviating severe symptoms and increasing patient comfort.
“Most people who come in and want to help just end up irritating me, but Christina has this calm and peace about her, and she brings it to me, and I take it in,” Orduno said. “It’s been really helpful, particularly in the beginning when they thought this was the end for me.”
A few weeks before Orduno’s transplant, Shu talked with her about how to cope during her two weeks at home before the procedure. Shu recommended some meditations, and Orduno talked about spending time with friends, about noticing each leaf on each tree.
“I want you to give me a prayer about not freaking out about the transplant, about staying in the moment,” Orduno requested.
“Holy One, gracious God, spirit of life,” Shu began, taking Orduno’s hands, bruised from IV lines, “we ask for your blessing for Angie. We pray you will surround her with your love and comfort. We ask that with every breath that she takes she will feel herself grounded in this present moment, that she feel open to the peace and the gratitude and the joy that is present in each day. … We ask that wherever she goes she feels that sense of peace and calm in her body, and in her mind, and in her spirit, and that she knows that whatever comes she has the strength to accept it and be present with it. Amen.”
Patients generally are matched with chaplains of their own faith, however given that having someone available at any moment is crucial with this kind of work, all the chaplains are trained and expected to minister to patients of all faiths, and to those with no faith at all.
Shu said some patients have asked her to visit, but only on condition that she not mention God.
“One of the most important things about training chaplains is we learn how not to impose our own beliefs on someone else, but to work with what their beliefs are,” said the Rev. Pamela Lazor, a Presbyterian chaplain at Cedars.
Lazor trained and then worked at UCLA’s Clinical Pastoral Education program before coming to Cedars. She said she learned there the importance of working to understand what a patient’s perception of God and spirituality is, and meeting them there.
Rabbi Pearl Barlev, a chaplain at UCLA’s Ronald Reagan Medical Center, remembers being on call when a baby was not going to make it through the night and the parents wanted him baptized.
“A rabbi performing a baptism is not genuine for the family or the rabbi,” Barlev said.
Instead, she relied on the script and accouterments the chaplaincy office has for baptisms, and she gathered the family, doctors and nurses, handing out parts to the Christians who were there.