When I was 8 years old, I knew I was going to join the Peace Corps as soon as I could.  My life was focused on this – I selected my university and classes for this purpose.  And after spending a year living in Nepal and volunteering with various health agencies, especially Save the Children U.S. – Nepal, I decided that I would become a Registered Nurse.  I was also being pragmatic – I figured that there would always be a need for nurses and while I might not be paid in money, if I were working for a community I would at least have a roof over my head and food.  And, I figured that while Physician Assistant was not a field well-known in other countries, everyone understood what a nurse was.

Many life events intervened from the time I returned to the U.S. to complete my BSN and the beginning of my professional life….and I never did join the Peace Corps.  I did, though, spend quite a few years working as a nurse in Wisconsin with a wide variety of cultural groups, including refugees from many different countries.  At one point, I had days at work during which I communicated with patients using Nepali, Hindi, Spanish, French, Hebrew and a smattering of Vietnamese.  These were, actually, very exciting times and I felt I was making a significant contribution to my community.

Over time as I continued to work as a nurse, I felt called to move into hospice work.  What turned out to be my final years working as a nurse were in hospice.  There, I was confronted daily by patients and families who were distressed by what I called at that time, theological questions.  But as I came to better understand the questions later on – these patients and families were expressing the symptoms of classical spiritual distress.

Somewhere in my second year of hospice work I realized two shifts were occurring.  The first:  As a hands-on healthcare provider (RN, MD, OT, RT, etc) you have to be able to keep a wall between yourself and your patient.  If you do not, you will feel distress every time you do something that – while it will bring the patient back to health – causes pain in the short term (think of giving shots, aggressively cleaning a deep wound, suctioning a patient’s tracheostomy).  I lost that wall and was unable to reconstruct it.  The second:  I found myself increasingly drawn to the questions and spiritual/religious struggles the patients and families were experiencing, and less interested in the medications and medical management of the patient’s symptoms.  Not a good combination if I was going to keep practicing as an RN.

So, I started to delve more deeply into the questions posed by my families.  And, while there were certainly other influencing factors at play, it was these questions and my fascination with them that were leading reasons I entered rabbinical school.

Once at seminary, most people I met immediately assumed I would become a healthcare chaplain.  Well, hah! I thought.  I was through with hospitals and healthcare…..And, well, they were right.  I am now in my eighth year as a full time healthcare chaplain and I love the work with a passion.  Moreover, everything I have done and learned is called upon in this work:  My training in anthropology; living in multiple countries and learning a half-dozen different languages; living in different religious communities and studying their sacred texts and liturgies; developing a flexibility and curiosity fed by my understanding that no two situations are ever going to be the same, and that the single most important skill I can bring to every encounter in life is listening and observing.  These days, every day feels like a mini-United Nations to me.

I will be blogging more about how I do my work as a Rabbi who is responsible for the religious/spiritual nurturing of patients, families, and staff who come from around the world, represent most of the world’s religions, and who are wrestling with the realities of the U.S. healthcare system, as well as the realities of daily suffering.

But for now, I would like to thank the Showtime TV show Weeds for the most eloquent and compact demonstration I have ever seen of one aspect of what a healthcare chaplain does.  You can watch the clip on Youtube.  And honestly, while the show’s writer certainly crafted a dialogue meant to shock, this is not far from the reality of what we healthcare chaplains often hear.  To become a healthcare chaplain we have to undergo a rigorous 12 – 18 month training program, a postgraduate fellowship, called Clinical Pastoral Education.  It is during this time that we learn the basics of how to sit with people – day after day – and be present and non-judging as they express distress, fear, anger, shame, loss, anger at God/loss of faith, finding the sacred.…every possible emotion and every possible personal history.  Add to this all the different religions that people practice, and then the individual person’s interpretation of their religion….it can get complicated and oh so messy.  Yet, extraordinary.  It is in this work that the barriers come down and people present in their fullness and in their most vulnerable state.

What a privilege it is to be with people at these times.  Here, my wall is just right – constructed enough that I do not take on others’ issues or over-identify with them – but osmotic and flexible enough that my empathy can be shared.