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Spiritual care helps secular patients contend with illness

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By Amiram Barkat

"The spiritual care I received at the hospital helped me find the strength in myself to deal with the disease," says Ora Haviv, 62, who developed lung cancer following exposure to asbestos. Haviv does not define herself as religious, and says she does not believe in God. Nevertheless, reading the Bible and other texts helped her contend with her illness, she says.

"I was told I had half a year to 11 months to live, and 30 months have gone by since then," she says. "I found myself reading verses from Psalms - like 'I will lift up mine eyes unto the mountains: From whence shall my help come?' - and analyzing them in a non-religious manner. But beyond studying the texts, the spiritual care enabled me to emerge from the great loneliness that stems from the inability to share my plight with friends and family."

Haviv is among dozens of patients benefiting from a "spiritual-care" service at Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem. The UJA Federation of New York, which has financed the service for the past two years, wants to expand the project to other hospitals. The Federation and the Israel Cancer Association also want spiritual care to be recognized professionally by the Israeli medical establishment, as is the case in the United States.

The project at Shaare Zedek was based on a model used in U.S. hospitals, where chaplains from the three monotheistic religions provide pastoral care. Their main task is to contact patients of their persuasion and offer assistance with prayer or other religious rituals. Activity centers on "critical moments" - before surgery, or following the death of a fellow patient on the ward.

The main difference between the service developing in Israel and that available to patients in the United States is the attitude toward secular patients. The approach at Shaare Zedek is termed "spiritual," as opposed to religious.

"Our object is to create a spiritual environment around the patient, by drafting a prayer that suits him, reading texts that speak to him, or other spiritual activity," says Yonatan Rodnik, a spiritual caregiver at the hospital.

All the spiritual caregivers currently are Jewish, but the hospital would be delighted to employ people of Christian or Muslim heritage.

The service at Shaare Zedek was the brainchild of Dr. Nathan Cherny, director of the hospital's Cancer Pain and Palliative Medicine Service. "I became familiar with the topic when I worked at a cancer hospital in the United States," Cherny says. "In Israel, traditionally, patients' spiritual needs are not addressed. The rabbis who work in hospitals focus much more on kashrut and halakha problems than on visiting patients. They inquire if patients need Shabbat candles and not, for instance, whether they're angry at God."

Cherny says there is no scientific proof that spiritual care can extend patients' lives, but he is certain it has great influence on their quality of life.

A comprehensive study published last year by Dr. Harvey Chochinov, a world expert on palliative care, showed that "spiritual" problems have a greater impact than physical pain on cancer patients' will to live.

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