I've just finished my first full week of my Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) summer program, taking place at Beth Israel Medical Center in downtown NYC. This week has been pretty tame in comparison to what's yet to come, since we haven't officially began working in the hospital yet, though already we're learning a lot about pastoral care and counseling. Moreso, however, each member of my group has learned a tremendous amount about each other and ourselves, and how we can apply all of these new personal discoveries to the work we'll be doing with our patients.
This particular program is comprised of people of all religions, working together to learn how to become multi-faith hospital chaplains. We administer pastoral care to all people, whether or not they share our religious beliefs. Because of this, I have learned a tremendous amount about the faiths of my group members. My group is comprised of 3 HUC students (myself and 2 rabbinical students--one from my class, one from the class above me), 1 JTS student, 3 Episcopalian students studying to become priests, and one Muslim imam. It has been a truly wonderful experience to open my eyes to the customs and beliefs of my classmates (both Jewish AND non-Jewish) and to share my own Jewish customs with others. I already feel more sensitive to the spiritual needs of my patients because of what I've learned from my classmates. This experience has also sparked a previously unrecognized interest in interfaith work, both inside and outside the world of hospital chaplaincy. I continue to be amazed at the commonalities between all of us; our beliefs are different, but all of us have the same goal: to help our congregants connect to God in whatever ways our jobs allow us to. It's a very powerful realization that has given me a huge amount of respect for clergy people across the board.
Like I said, we haven't begun our work with patients as of yet. So far, the program has focused on the kinds visits we're meant to have. Pastoral care is so very different than a visit from a doctor, nurse, family member, or clergy person. These people are meant to provide care from a glass-half-full perspective; they are the patients' cheerleaders and positive-thinkers. They are the ones who tell the patients that they are going to beat their cancer or disease and feel better very soon. Pastoral care focuses on a glass-half-empty perspective, giving the people we see a chance to talk about their fears, their pains, their heartaches. Our job is to allow them to realize and externalize the frustrations that come with being at the hospital, and the disappointments and anguish that accompany terminal illness and death. Once they've done that to whatever degree our 15-20 minute visits will allow, we offer them a custom-made, spontaneous prayer to God that offers relief from pain and suffering and whatever comforts God is able to provide.
Obviously the process is difficult and frightening for both the patient and the chaplain. Confronting one's most substantial regrets, fears, weaknesses, and feelings is never easy. To demonstrate this to us on a level we can understand (since none of us, thank God, is near-death), we've had to participate in a lot of exercises to draw out some of our most hidden secrets and anxieties. This week has been emotionally exhausting in that sense, but I really have come to understand a little bit of how our patients feel as they go through this experience. I've thought a lot about my life, particularly the down times, as I've gone through this process. It's not fun and it feels never ending, but it's important to me as a chaplain and as a human being. It has also, even in just one week, helped me to connect to God in a way I never have before. In some sense, I feel God's presence with me in a very different way--one that is difficult for me to explain in words, but is easy for me to feel. I look forward to exploring this newfound relationship as the weeks go by and I begin to work with my patients.
We officially begin working with patients on Monday. Yesterday, we were assigned our units for the hospital (Beth Israel is too large for everyone to cover the whole hospital without confusion, so we're each assigned specific sections of the hospital.) As of now, I'll be working in Cardiology and Orthopedics, specifically patients in the Head and Neck division. I will also be assigned one more unit, which I am hoping will be either Bariatrics OR the Eating Disorders division of the Psych ward. I haven't talked much about my senior thesis (another topic for another blog), but I'm thinking that some work with patients with eating disorders or food issues would be not only helpful for my thesis topic, but cathartic for me on my weight-loss journey. If I'm not assigned one of these areas, I'll probably work with patients in General Surgery as my third unit.
To say I'm excited about this summer would be a complete lie. I'm TERRIFIED of what I will experience in the next 10 weeks. It's scary to be the person to facilitate discussions of death and pain and loss, especially in those moments where you know that you won't have the right answers or words of comfort. However, I've already learned that this work is the true definition of holy work. I might not have the right answers, but I will have the power to bring God's presence into the life of someone who needs it more than anything. It's a pretty amazing and powerful thought, and a job that I'm already feeling honored to partake in.
In closing, I want to share an experience I had with my group on Thursday. We were taking the grand tour of Beth Israel Medical Center and stopped at the ICU to meet some of the staff there. The rabbi who was leading us on our tour was asked if he would lead a prayer for a patient who was being taken off the ventilator. The patient was not Jewish, so he asked the Episcopalians in our group if any of them might be interested in leading the prayer. One of them bravely, without hesitation, said yes. He checked with the family to see if they'd rather have a rabbi or a Christian student-chaplain, and the family requested my classmate. We watched her courageously enter the room and gather the family members. We couldn't hear the words she offered, but all of us silently listened and prayed along with her. She came out of the room, emotional and a bit shaken, and said that she knew she'd made a powerful difference in that family's life. We were all kvelling over her strength and courage as we felt God's presence all over the ICU, surrounding both her patient and all of us. It was, by far, one of the holiest experiences I have ever been blessed to be a part of.