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Cedars-Sinai’s chaplaincy program puts spirituality on the medical charts

by Julie Gruenbaum Fax

December 12, 2012 | 3:39 pm

Chaplain Christina Shu prays with patient ­Angelina Orduno before her stem-cell ­transplant at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. Photo courtesy of Cedars-Sinai Medical Center

Chaplain Christina Shu prays with patient ­Angelina Orduno before her stem-cell ­transplant at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. Photo courtesy of Cedars-Sinai Medical Center

Usually, the frantic words, “Someone get the rabbi!” uttered in a hospital room mean only one thing. So Debbie Marcus burst into tears when Rabbi Jason Weiner was summoned to her grandfather’s room at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in July 2008. 

Weiner, then interim Jewish chaplain at Cedars-Sinai, quickly assessed the situation: Albert Rubens, 97, had been brought in with a massive heart attack. Although he was still lucid, it was clear he was not going to make it. 

But even with that devastating news, the rabbi detected that Debbie’s tears were about something more. And he was right. Albert, known to his family as Pop-Pop, had been eager to see Debbie, then 39, get married, but she and her then-fiancé, Marty Marcus, had not set a date for the wedding.

So someone floated an idea: Get married. Right now. 

[RELATED: Rabbi Jason Weiner on his chaplaincy: 'It drew me in']

Pop-Pop liked it and so did the couple. Weiner agreed to officiate and scrambled to get the ritual items they would need. Within two hours, Debbie and Marty were holding Pop-Pop’s hands under a tallit — the family prayer shawl — which family members raised over the bed as a wedding canopy using poles Weiner had procured. Weiner recited the wedding blessings, and Marty gave Debbie a ring, which he had just bought from her aunt (tradition requires he own the ring used in the ceremony). Marty sealed the deal by stomping on a Styrofoam cup.

Pop-Pop died just hours after cries of “mazel tov” filled his room.

“It made me feel good that he got to see us married, that he was at peace and that he knew I was going to be taken care of. That’s what he was really concerned with,” Debbie said. 

For Weiner, now senior rabbi and manager of spiritual care at Cedars, this story dramatically illustrates what hospital chaplains are called upon to do: to step into a family’s life at a critical moment, when the deepest questions and family relationships and unfinished business are all intensely focused. 

“These are moments that are very sacred, but you might not recognize the sacredness of the moment because of the bells and everything going off. And if you stop and have someone help you do a life review or make meaning out of it, you realize the profundity of what is happening here,” Weiner said, standing outside a patient’s room last summer, one of several conversations over a few months that this reporter spent talking to and shadowing chaplains, doctors and patients at Cedars.   

Recognizing that refuat hanefesh, healing the spirit, is as integral to its mission as refuat haguf, healing the body, over just the last two years, Cedars has nearly quadrupled its staff of chaplains, from three clergy members to 11, five of them Jewish. In the month of August 2011, its Jewish, Catholic, non-Catholic Christian and interfaith chaplains visited fewer than 400 patients. One year later, that monthly number had risen to more than 1,000. 

Cedars’ investment reflects a national trend. In the last five years, medical institutions have caught on to the advantages of offering spiritual care. Now hospitals not only hire more chaplains but also require professional training and certification in the field. Chaplains have been upping professional standards for at least the last 25 years, replacing volunteer rabbis, nuns and other clergy with chaplains certified only after 1,600 hours of supervised field work and achieving an advanced degree in their religion. Spiritual care has even become a factor in accrediting health care organizations.

A 2011 study published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine found that patients who feel their spiritual and religious needs are being met say they are more satisfied with their overall hospital experience.

In 2010, following a six-month assessment involving 20 departments, Cedars, which has 923 beds and an overall budget of $2 billion, began to include its newly enlarged staff of chaplains on daily rounds visiting patients, alongside doctors, nurses, social workers and ethicists. Chaplains now document a patient’s progress on the same chart as the doctors. In November, Cedars opened its own clinical pastoral education program, which will train up to six chaplains a year.

“When Cedars was founded 110 years ago, it was a place where people went to die. It was called the Mount Sinai Home for Incurables,” said Jonathan Schreiber, director of community engagement at Cedars. “Today, the majority of people who come to our hospital live and go on and thrive, and this is a moment where they are at perhaps a challenge in their life, and to be there at their side and help them through that moment is remarkably precious and important work.” 

A few months after Debbie and Marty Marcus’ hospital-room wedding, Weiner officiated at a more formal ceremony in a Malibu vineyard, and two years later, he named their now almost-2-year-old twins, Ilan and Alea — in memory of Pop-Pop, Albert. 

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