Exactly one year ago, I had just been released from the hospital and it was one of the most strange and humbling experiences I have ever had. I was admitted to a Catholic hospital in the city, and remained there for five days after finding that my appendix had ruptured. I would eventually return six weeks later to have my appendix removed, since it was too dangerous to remove it at that time. In 2004, I had worked and trained as a hospital chaplain for 11 weeks in New York, and back then, I thought that I had really grown accustomed to what the hospital was all about. Let me tell you, I was wrong. It was not until this experience that I learned how being in a hospital when you are really sick makes you feel a whole range of emotions: fear, hope, exhaustion, impatience, and above all, complete dependence on your loved ones keeping an eye on you and the medical staff taking care of you.
It was a little odd being a Jew in a Catholic hospital, but it was an emergency, and this is where my doctor sent me. Arriving at my room being pushed in a wheelchair, as I relax in the not-so-relaxing bed, I am groggy and dehydrated and look up to see a . . . cross.
So, here I am, an incredibly ill, bed-ridden appendicitis patient, and I immediately yell to my family, "I want that taken down!" Well, my family did not think it was appropriate for me to be saying this—they told me to just ignore it, and that every prayer counted.
Personally, I have visited so many people in hospitals, both my own congregants, and many people of other faiths, as many chaplains are trained in Interfaith chaplaincy. Our work often involves creating an Interfaith prayer—a prayer that was neutral of any religion or tradition, but was still a comforting response for the patient.
Each day during my hospital stay began with a chaplain reading a comforting prayer of this nature over the intercom. This was the official wakeup call, as compared to the multiple times I was woken by nurses and other staff coming in and out of my room throughout the night. Isn't rest the best medicine? Since my rabbi was out of town, I picked up a brochure that was placed in my room and found that I could request for the hospital’s rabbi to visit me by asking the nurse. She responded, "Oh, we only have priests available today." Strike two.
Yet, I did get a few of my wishes that week. First, I got to watch the entire presidential inauguration—TWICE! (It was great the first time!) Having worked in a hospital and fielded requests for chaplains, I had a feeling that if I left a message with the Pastoral Care department, it would end up in the right hands. Nearly a day later, the hospital rabbi visited me. He was an older fellow who seemed to greatly enjoy playing Jewish Geography with my mother. I will give him due credit that he delivered me a really nice little basket of Shabbat goodies on that Friday just before I was released. I was, however, a little stunned and turned off when he forced his personal theology upon me telling me that he preferred to pray only on behalf of the doctors and staff rather than for the patient directly. I wanted my Mi Shebeirach too.
I returned to work a week and a half later, still recuperating from that experience. I shared my multitude of experiences and stories with everyone, including my rabbi, now back in town. I told him about the cross, and to my satisfaction, he agreed and said, "Well, I would have done the same too." If you ever find yourself in a similar situation, the hospital rabbi told me that they do have covers to place over the crosses—no one should feel out of place or uncomfortable in a hospital room.
As a cantor, one of the most amazing things has happened from my experiences in the hospital. It has forever changed the way I visit my congregants when they are ill. When I look in the bed, I see myself—weak and looking for a hand to hold, longing for a conversation, and ultimately waiting to be blessed with a prayer.