"A woman came into my office yesterday needing to make a decision about the amputation of her husband's leg," said Rabbi Levi Meier, the chaplain at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. "It was a very difficult case, because her husband cannot give proper, informed consent, because his mind is not functioning anymore.
"Then I had another woman who wanted to know about code vs. no code," the Orthodox rabbi continued. "'Code' means to try to resuscitate. Her husband is on life-support system, and the doctors were pressuring her to make a decision about whether they should code him or not. I helped her understand the Jewish medical ethics involved, and to make a decision."
It's all in a day's work for Meier, who has served as the Jewish chaplain at Cedars-Sinai since 1978. (There is also a Catholic chaplain who serves Christian needs.)
With over 50 percent of the beds in the 905-bed hospital occupied by Jewish patients at any given time, Meier finds himself administering pastoral care to patients who are terminally ill, have presurgery anxiety or depression or need to deal with family dynamics that have changed with the encroachment of debilitating illness. He also helps doctors cope with a job that finds them getting up close and personal with death on a regular basis.
"The main aspect of my counseling is from a spiritual perspective. I use [the same techniques] psychologists and psychiatrists use, but I look at the spirit, where people can feel their relationship with God personally, not in a cognitive sense, but in a personal sense," said Meier, the father of four, who holds a doctorate in gerontology and is a licensed psychologist. "Because when you feel God in a personal way, you become a different person."
In his role as chaplain, Meier has found many ways to bring God to Cedars-Sinai. The rabbi has organized Jewish medical ethics conferences and synagogue services for Shabbat and the Jewish holidays. He has produced closed-circuit religious television programs for the patients. Meier also teaches a Torah class at the hospital every Thursday, which is open to patients, doctors, staff and members of the board of directors and board of governors.
During his tenure, the rabbi has overseen the establishment of a kosher kitchen that can service kosher patients with special dietary requirements, (such as low-sodium needs). And working with Sharon and Herb Glazer, he has seen that mezuzot were placed on every door of the hospital, including patients' rooms.
Meier also confers with the medical center's board of directors and board of governors about how they can best live up to the facility's motto: "And be a blessing," a verse taken from Genesis.
"'And be a blessing' means taking care of poor people, no matter what culture, ethnicity or religious faith they have," Meier said. "Taking care of indigent patients of all religions is central to Judaism, and that is why the ambulatory care center (a walk-in clinic that has a sliding fee scale for low-income patients) is a central part of the hospital."
Under the same program, Cedars-Sinai also operates traveling coaches that take doctors and other health-care workers into low-income communities that are underserved medically, making it convenient and affordable for families to receive quality medical attention.
Meier recently parlayed his experiences at Cedars-Sinai into a book titled, "Seven Heavens: Inspirational Stories to Elevate Your Soul." The book is about a fictional patient named Jonathan, a scientist who worked on the human genome project. Jonathan finds himself facing mortality, and feels the need to bare his soul to Meier.
This story line is secondary to the messages that Meier wants to bring out in the book, that life is a series of moments, and each is moment is perpetually sacred. The book talks frankly and openly about death, and helps readers come to terms with the inevitable.
"I say vidui [the Hebrew confession for those facing imminent mortality] with people a few times a week," Meier said. "And what that has done to me is it has helped me prioritize what is important in life. Sometimes people will have an argument about the color of furniture, should it be blue or purple, or things like that. And while it is nice to have good colors, there is a larger picture."
Meier said every story that he tells in the book is true, although identifying details were changed. "My main character, Jonathan, is an M.D. Ph.D. A lot of the people around here are M.D. Ph.Ds, and they have a sense of certainty about themselves and about life, until something happens to them, and then they begin to look at their soul.
"That is what this book is about, what I call, 'The Soul Project.' What I am trying to do is to combine the human genome project that they are doing with the human soul project that I am doing. I want to make people aware of how their soul is affecting their health."
"Seven Heavens: Inspirational Stories to Elevate Your Soul" (Devora Publishing, $24.95) is available in bookstores. To reach Rabbi Levi Meier at Cedars-Sinai, call (310) 423-5238
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