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Hospice Chaplain Story:
Making a Difference in a Disheveled Life

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A New Patient

When Rabbi Michael Cohen walked into a nursing home to visit a 90-year-old Jewish man who was a new VITAS patient, the receptionist warned him that the new resident was angry, probably about someone on the staff. Michael remembers being surprised at the disarray of the room when he got to the door. He introduced himself and asked the man how he was.

“How do you think I feel?” the man shot back. “I'm 90 and I’m decrepit!” And he launched into a harangue, Michael says, against rabbis and the rabbinic establishment and society and the Western World. He had one warm spot, for a lesser-known Jewish rabbi philosopher.

“He was very vigorous for a 90-year-old man,” Michael quips. “But it was unpleasant. And I wondered how I would find a foothold to enter the conversation.”

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Providing Spiritual Support

Welcome to the world of chaplaincy, when trained religious leaders from every sect and denomination learn to minister to wide and varied populations. There are chaplains on college campuses and on battlefields, in prisons and in hospitals. Michael Cohen is a hospice chaplain for VITAS Healthcare in Dallas. He may meet with a patient who is a devout Catholic or a devout Jew. Or who is devoutly of no religion at all. His job is to be there, understand, provide spiritual comfort or make arrangements for another religious leader to come to the home. Chaplains never know quite what to expect—or what is expected of them.

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But that day Michael recognized the obscure philosopher the man held in esteem. More importantly, Michael addressed the man’s death frankly and calmly, asking him about his COPD and how he wanted to use the time he had remaining. It seems the man’s family had recently moved him to this memory care facility and not had time to settle him in. In fact, they hadn’t had time to tell him he was on hospice. The man was infuriated by the spate of caregivers who kept appearing at his bedside. He was confused and angry.

Connection Between Souls

So Michael and the patient talked. About the philosopher. About Judaism. About the man’s family. About leaving a legacy and what that might mean for him. In the end, the man went from tyrant to teddy bear. “Who am I to tell people what to think?” he asked Michael when the talk turned to ethical will writing. 

“The hour went by quickly, and we both looked forward to our next meeting,” Michael says, pleased but not surprised by the turn-around. “My identification as a rabbi was both a lure and a target for him. But no doubt about it, there was a connection between souls that day.

“Chaplains fill a role,” he says reflectively. “There may be a metaphor implicit in the stories our patients tell us. I feel so gratified to have the chance to make a difference in this man’s disheveled life.”

Related Articles:

What is Hospice? It Puts the Patient and Family in Control

What is Hospice? It is a Full Range of Care