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.