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The Ins And Outs Of Visiting The Sick: An Interview With Hospital Chaplain Rabbi Simeon Schreiber

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Some people are naturals at visiting people in the hospital. Others feel awkward: What should I say? How long should I stay? Does the person even want me to come?

Rabbi Simeon Schreiber, senior staff chaplain at Mount Sinai Medical Center in Miami Beach, Florida, has just written a book, A Caring Presence: Bringing the Gift of Hope, Comfort and Courage, addressing some of these common concerns based on his 10 years of chaplaincy experience.

Although obviously a regular visitor to hospitals, Rabbi Schreiber found himself in a hospital last month in an unusual position – as a patient undergoing open-heart surgery. “Thank God,” he told The Jewish Press two weeks after the operation, “the surgery was successful and everything is good.” In addition to making a complete recovery, Rabbi Schreiber said he hopes his recent experience as a patient will make him even more sensitive to the needs of the hospital-bound.

The Jewish Press: When and why did you enter the chaplaincy?

I’ve been a chaplain for about 10 years. I first started thinking about becoming a chaplain when my son, who is now in his 40s, developed Hodgkin’s disease. It was very sudden. He was actually in Israel and expected to go into the army. Then he got this notice from the army that something was wrong and they subsequently told him he has lymphoma.

I brought him back to the States about two or three days after that for a full year of tests, operations and chemo. Thank God he managed to pull through and is flourishing right now with a wife and three children in Kansas City. But I think that got me started on the concept of trying to take care of people.

In the book you state that most of the advice you offer is common sense. If so, why is the book necessary?

People are not so familiar with common sense sometimes. For example, if you would ask me what my pet peeve is, it’s people not calling before they come to visit someone. People forget that bikur cholim is not about the visitor but the person you’re visiting. And that person sometimes just doesn’t want to be visited.

To wit, when I was in the hospital recently I just did not want visitors – and people have to respect that. I had someone show up at 11 o’clock at night; he just walked into my room. I had a central line in my neck with three tubes showing out, and this person just showed up, “Hi, I’m here,” and I wasn’t very happy.

You write in the book that one shouldn’t joke around with patients or talk about matters irrelevant to their condition. But don’t jokes sometimes cheer a person up, distracting him from his sickness?

I think what you say is true. You have to assess the patient. What I write in the book is not hewn in stone. They are flexible ideas.

Many people, though, assume bikur cholim is about telling jokes. But that’s not what the patient really wants. It’s not a comedy session. The key to proper hospital visitation is really listening to the patient. It’s not necessarily doing all the talking. It’s about allowing the patients to talk about what’s bothering them. Talking about what went on and maybe the fears or concerns they had – there’s a cathartic kind of response to that that makes them feel better.

That’s not to say that visitors can never crack a joke or talk about something that’s off the subject. Of course they can. It’s dialogue between people. But I don’t think that should be the main focus.

You also argue in the book that people should never promise a patient that things will get better. Do you find that many people do that?

People want to fix the situation. They come there with the idea that when they leave, the person is going to be 100 percent better. What I’ve come to learn, however – and I think it’s probably the most frustrating part of being a chaplain – is that I cannot change what is. I can’t make a 90-year-old man 50, and I can’t get rid of terminal cancer.

The best we can do in situations like that is just allow the person to talk about their situation in the hope that things will be okay in terms of living with what they have. That’s a role visitors have to understand as well. Their job is not to change things. It’s about being – the title of the book says it all – it’s about being a caring presence. It’s just to be there with them in their time of need, and to hold their hand. For them to know that someone cares is really the most critical thing you can do in chaplaincy.

You write, though, that it’s important to leave a patient with hope.

Exactly. You always leave with the idea of hope. I have a patient right now dying of pancreatic cancer. But I never go on statistics. I had cancer myself eight years ago. I say to patients: I want you to know you’re looking at someone who had cancer, and here I am talking to you. You always have to have hope because the truth of the matter is we really don’t know. There are stories every day where people who you think are going to die just don’t. We’re not God. So although you don’t promise, you do give them hope.

You’ve been a chaplain for a decade now. What are some of the more interesting things you’ve experienced?

I write about one of them in the book. When I was a chaplain in Hackensack University Medical Center before moving to Florida, a young lady came over to me and said her mother had been in a very serious accident – she was hit by a car going 80 miles an hour – and asked if I would mind visiting her.

When I came into the room I saw a very seriously ill woman. I spoke to her for just a few minutes – I didn’t want to tax her – and at the end I said, “May I say a prayer for you?” She said yes, and I said, “What is it that I can pray for?” She said her dog Buttercup had died two weeks ago, and she’s concerned that the dog is not being fed or walked properly in heaven. Would I please pray for Buttercup?

Well, I went to Yeshiva University and studied under Rav Soloveitchik, but I never learned how to pray for a dog. Nonetheless, I created a prayer that God should take care of Buttercup in heaven, He should make sure that he has friends, that he’s walked daily, that he’s fed properly and that he will be very well taken care of. When I finished I saw that the woman’s face completely changed. She was relieved that I had prayed for her dog.

So it’s important to ask what patients want you to pray for because if you make the wrong assumption, you may end up saying a prayer that has nothing to do with what they really want.

Of course, there may be those who say, “I don’t want any prayer,” and you accept that as well. I’m not there to force prayer or my religious beliefs on you. The idea is to be present with the individual and allow them to know there’s someone in the world that cares about them, is listening to them, and will try to help them through their situation.

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About the Author: Elliot Resnick is a Jewish Press staff reporter and holds a Masters degree from Yeshiva University’s Bernard Revel School of Jewish Studies.


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