The Art of Spiritual Care

October 31, 2014

Rabbi Sara Berman’s work as senior chaplain at Providence Tarzana Medical Center sometimes means simply being there for patients, no matter what their religious traditions.

One way to describe medical science today: The daily occurrence of thousands of ordinary miracles. It’s now possible to transplant lungs,
livers and hearts. Some surgeries even can be done with robots. Millions of people who once would have died prematurely go on to survive for years or decades.
But spiritual healing in the hospital still happens much as it did a century ago—through gifted, compassionate, spiritual servants such as Rabbi Sara Berman, senior chaplain at Providence Tarzana Medical Center.

Since her arrival at the hospital in September 2008, Berman has ministered in a truly nondenominational way—to Jewish, Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, agnostic and atheist patients and their families, and to the medical center’s staff. The special nature of the community where she works isn’t lost on her.

“One thing that makes Providence Tarzana very unique is that it’s a Catholic hospital,” she notes. “But we put a mezuzah on every door. We provide Shabbat candles every Friday, and we do a lot for the Jewish holidays.”

But, she adds, when she or any other member of the spiritual care team are on call, “we serve any patient, any code that comes in, any prayer request, any death.”

Her day starts at 6 a.m. in order to meet with patients being prepped for surgery who may want a prayer, or to respond to any emergency. She then helps prepare her staff, which consists of another rabbi, a Protestant chaplain, two priests and a chaplaincy student. “I like to send a daily quote in the morning to the staff to get the day started,” says Berman, who was ordained in 2001 and is a board-certified chaplain with the National Association of Jewish Chaplains.

She sometimes also blesses nurses’ hands “for the work they do” and offers what she calls “tea for the soul—bringing up tea and blessings for the staff.” Later in the day she’ll visit patients on her floors—med-surg and oncology—to make sure all the Jewish patients get a visit from her.

The conversations she has can, of course, be difficult ones. “A lot of times when someone is afraid, after some kind of loss, whether it’s end-of-life or some other change, people want to discuss that fear,” she says. “Sometimes the patient doesn’t want to talk, but I’ll talk to the family. Sometimes the thing the patient wants most is just presence and silence. I’m often just present, and I don’t say anything.” Cancer patients hold a special place in Berman’s heart.

Her father is an oncologist, and she spent time working in a hospice where she tended to many cancer patients. As emotionally taxing as the work was, she found she liked the consistency of oncology.

“People stay longer, so you get to know them,” she explains. “It’s an amazing group of people to work with—generally positive and optimistic despite what they’re going through.”

Many hospitalized patients, whether seriously ill or not, may not think to ask for spiritual help. “People don’t need to have any religious background to talk to us. They can be atheist. They can be angry at religion,” she notes. “Our goal is to be where the patient is.”

It’s a balance that Shawn Kiley, director of mission leadership at Providence Tarzana, says this rabbi strikes beau- tifully. “She’s a true person of Providence in caring and revealing God’s love for each person,” says Kiley, noting that Rabbi Berman is exceptionally gifted in helping the bereaved. “She ensures that somehow healing is brought to those in need.”

When she leaves the hospital for home, the Harry Potter-loving rabbi can focus on being mom to Benjamin, 17, and Miriam, 14, and wife to David, a scientist. “I have a pretty chaotic house with two teenagers, two cats and a dog,” she says with a laugh. “But I thrive on chaos, so it’s OK.”

She added more chaos to her life in June 2007 by deciding to become a stem-cell donor. Why did she opt to undergo the uncomfortable procedure that, in her case, took eight to 12 hours a day for two days?

“There’s a Jewish expression that one who saves a life, it’s as if he saved a universe. I thought of that and thought, ‘If I could make a difference, why not?’” remembers Berman, who also organizes Providence Tarzana’s team for Relay for Life, a race sponsored by the American Cancer Society.

The rabbi wanted to meet the recipient of her stem cells, but the registry required that both parties wait one year following the donation and that both recipient and donor needed to agree to make contact. They did.

“I think the first contact was by phone ... it was amazing to first connect with him and learn his story,” Berman says, adding that she first met her recipient in person—Michael, a married father of two young children, who lives in Atlanta—in 2011.

In January Berman and her daughter met Michael and his family at the Harry Potter theme park in Orlando, Florida. “We had connecting hotel rooms and pretty much spent three full days together,” she says. “It was amazing.”

For Michael, the donation—while difficult—has meant nothing less than regaining his life. “He’s said to me a couple of times just how grateful he is that he has this time with his kids,” says Berman. “He actually gave me a necklace that has a lot of symbolism. It’s a heart and in the center is a green stone, which is supposed to be healing. He said I represented the green stone.”