“I was the last person the family wanted to see,” a veteran Washington, D.C., hospital chaplain, Father Alexander*, confided to me several years ago. He recalled how, early in his career, he gently approached a Jewish patient’s room ready to be a comforting presence but was met by a cold stare from the patient’s family.
He quickly backed away, not interested in making a challenging situation worse. At the same time, he became acutely aware of his collar. It was white and black and rather stiff, identifying him as the priest that in fact he was. That moment was an eye opener for him and later factored into his decision to frequently remove his collar when making hospital visits. He was in the hospital to help meet patient’s spiritual needs, and he wanted them to understand that he did not have an agenda other than helping them the way they wanted to be helped.
This, said Rabbi Elie Gayer, staff chaplain for Bikur Cholim of Greater Washington, is the key role of a hospital chaplain: to provide a pastoral presence for all patients, family, and staff, regardless of their faith, by helping facilitate the resolution of their spiritual needs.
Reverend Deborah Carlton, a chaplain at INOVA Fairfax Medical Campus, echoed this sentiment. “A chaplain is trained to do a spiritual assessment, which will clarify what patients and families need during hospitalization,” she said. “While chaplains come from a [particular] faith tradition, they take their direction from what patients and families need and never proselytize. I have done some of my best care for patients and families by arranging for a religious leader of their own faith tradition to visit and work ‘behind the scenes’ to assist in education for staff about the patients/families’ religious needs.”
Rev. Carlton described herself as a good listener and feels it is a great honor to sit at hospital bedside. She emphasizes that she never minds or has hurt feelings if patients and families desire their own religious leader or even a different chaplain. “The focus,” Rev. Carlton emphasized, “is on our patients and families.”
Understanding this is key, said Rabbi Gayer. “The biggest misconception, in my opinion, that Jewish patients have about hospital chaplains is that they are there to represent their own religion, and assist people from their faith,” Rabbi Gayer said. “Some people even think that the chaplain will try to proselytize to the patient. Although a chaplain often can’t hide their affiliation, they are there for the patients’ needs, regardless of their faith. Chaplains serve atheists just the same.”
“Furthermore,” added Rabbi Gayer, “A hospital chaplain can be instrumental as a compassionate friend helping a patient or family member work through the emotional stresses of an illness and hospital stay and be an invaluable resource in helping an observant patient keep Shabbat, kashrut, and other halachot in the hospital. They are respectful and understanding of your needs, and have connections and access to resources to help you meet them. No patient or family member should be afraid or embarrassed to ask for help with their religious needs; no two patients are the same.”
“The chaplain can’t guess all your needs, but is eager to hear what’s important to the patient and the family,” he said.
While all hospital staff is working to help the patient, there are key issues that medical personnel might not immediately recognize as integral to wellness. Sara Glashofer and David Klein recently saw this firsthand while caring for their father, Max Klein z”l, who passed away last year.
Towards the end of his life, Max was hospitalized numerous times. One of the things that caused him the most stress was not his medical condition, but receiving his kosher meat meal along with a container of milk. It’s doubtful that the doctor thought or knew that this was her patient’s biggest concern and yet the anxiety produced by the spiritual dissonance was significant.
Seeing his own father’s experience sensitized David, an experienced emergency room physician himself, even further to the importance of the spiritual wellbeing of patients and the role chaplains can play. David and Sara had a chance to share their experiences with hospital chaplains at the recent Bikur Cholim of Greater Washington (BCGW)/ Jewish Social Service Agency (JSSA) symposium, “My Brother’s Keeper,” on caring for the Jewish Hospital patient.
Rev. Carlton appreciated hearing from them and others. “A few things in particular really struck me,” he said. “I realized how much I didn’t know about being observant and keeping kosher. I needed the reminder that Jews, as with other religious communities, have a wide variety of practices and theology. It was instructive to learn more about Judaism and its practices.”
“The event was also enlightening to David and Sara who learned more about what chaplains in the hospital can do and realized that they could have been the right people to help address their father’s kosher food needs.”
Jewish chaplains are also available to help patients of all faiths as well. Rabbi Gayer recalled fondly a paraplegic Christian patient he visited often while working in a rehabilitation center.
“We had developed a close relationship over the months that he was there,” said Rabbi Gayer. “He proudly told people that he was the only Methodist with his own Rabbi! There was nothing ‘religious’ about our conversations, yet I was there to attend to his spiritual needs.”
Long after Father Alexander had broadened his perspective, he was visiting with a another Jewish family in the hospital. The patient’s spouse had been with her husband in the emergency room all night and was hungry and disappointed with the kosher food offerings in the hospital. She asked if there might be a way to improve the offerings in the future.
Eager to help, Alexander worked with the family, BCGW, and the hospital administration to come up with a solution and he now keeps a small refrigerator in his office that BCGW stocks with kosher food for emergencies. This refrigerator has been a life saver for numerous families and Chaplain Alexander is grateful to have been able to use his listening skills and hospital connections to make this happen; and nothing beats the warm smiles and appreciation he receives from patients and family members.
* Name has been changed for privacy.
By Audrey Siegel
Audrey Siegel is the executive director of Bikur Cholim of Greater Washington. She is a former New Yorker who has enjoyed living in Silver Spring with her family for the past 27 years. Audrey hopes to hike or bike every nature trail in Montgomery County, so wave if you see her along the way.