A Jewish Hospital Chaplain’s Christmas

by David Balto, Volunteer Chaplain, Department of Spiritual Care
January 2, 2018

I am a Chaplain at MedStar Washington Hospital Center, the largest hospital in the nation's capital. It is my third year at the Hospital Center (where I did my Clinical Pastoral Education training) and I focus on several intensive care units and the cancer unit.

I decided to work Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.  My goal was to bring comfort especially for families of patients in critical condition and patients without families and friends who might not be visited. I focused on the cancer unit and all the ICUs.

Here are a few stories from those two days.

Finding a Home for the Homeless

One of the things I really wanted to do for Christmas was to serve food for those in need. Unfortunately,  all of the homeless shelters and the Archdiocese were already booked with volunteers.

When I arrived at the Hospital Center in the morning I saw a short elderly woman leaning in a fragile status in a lonely hallway. She looked confused, her coat was worn and torn and she had two large bags with her meager belongings. I asked her who she was, and after a while she finally was able to tell me her name, and that she had come to D.C. looking for her family.

She had no idea where to go or how to get there.

I got a wheelchair and took her to the cafeteria. I wheeled her through and she chose a complete Christmas dinner with turkey, stuffing, corn, sweet potatoes and pie. She obviously had not eaten for days. I kept her company while she ate. We talked about her life and she shared memories of Christmas as a child.

I then went searching for a shelter. Two places were filled. One place could not accept an elderly person, another only had top bunks (and there was no way she was going to climb into a bunk).  Finally, I found a shelter in Northwest, not far from the hospital.

I called an Uber, and after giving him extensive instructions to get her inside the shelter (and an additional tip), I sent my new friend off with blessings, wishes for a blessed holiday, and Psalm 121.

I  lift up my eyes to the mountains——
     where does my help come from?

2   My help comes from the Lord,
     the Maker of heaven and earth.

3   He will not let your foot slip—
     he who watches over you will not slumber;

 indeed, he who watches over Israel
     will neither slumber nor sleep.

5   The Lord watches over you—
     the Lord is your shade at your right hand;

6   the sun will not harm you by day,
     nor the moon by night.

7   The Lord will keep you from all harm—
     he will watch over your life;

 the Lord will watch over your coming and going
     both now and forevermore.

I said to her that the Lord is always her companion and I prayed she would be safe and would be at home.

Raising the Spirit with Song

The ICU waiting rooms can be a lonely place especially on Christmas. Families muster their courage and hope as they grapple with the unknown, the fear.  It is a challenge to feel the holiday cheer when someone beloved is in such fragile health, perhaps close to death. And perhaps there is hope but the anxiety clouds the glimmers of hope.

There are 10 ICU units at the Hospital Center. The waiting rooms are often dark, small and crowded. They are places where people often are overwhelmed, looking to the floor as if the fear closes them up.

It’s Christmas Eve – a time of hope. I went from waiting room to waiting room with my best weapons against fear – an open heart and a buoyant spirit and song sheets. I went to each of the waiting rooms on Christmas Eve and led them in Christmas carols. (Yes, Jewish Chaplains know Christmas carols, especially when they grow up in Minnesota.) And perhaps, just perhaps, as they sang the carols, they would kindle fond memories that would strengthen their hope and their faith for a few moments. And perhaps the carols would also strengthen their spirits and dissipate their fear.

Christmas through the Eyes of a Child and a Centenarian

Third floor ICU at 9 pm. It’s quiet. There is a little boy sitting with his aunt in a waiting room. He looks tired and bored. He needs a good-night story.

I told him a tale about a little boy who visits his grandmother and plays with animals – The Squeaky Door. We have to make the noises of the various animals in the story and we laugh together. People around the waiting room listen and watch us tell the story. He is ready for bed when we finish.

I then asked the ICU nurses for patients who may not have family visitors. There is a woman over 100 years old who had not been visited during the day. I sit quietly in her room and read psalms as she receives treatment. It reminded me of a woman – a National Park Service guide – I met earlier this year in Selma, Alabama, who told me her mother died in the 1950s during childbirth because they could not get “Black blood” in time from Birmingham. I asked myself, “Was there a time earlier in the patient’s life that this woman once received “Black blood?”

“Black blood?” What kind of a world was that? What kind of injustice had this woman faced in her life? And what kind of injustice – or justice – would the little boy face? I prayed that there would be justice for this child and others, and was reminded of what Dr. Martin Luther King said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

Finding the Hidden Birthdays

Much of my time was spent focusing on patients who would not have visitors. The spirit of Christmas – the joy, family connection, laughter, cheer – was absent. Certainly the staff was welcoming and provided good wishes, but there are an overwhelming number of patients. For those without visitors, the rooms could be quiet and sullen and the spirit might be absent.

So I went from room to room for those who would not receive visitors. Perhaps my simple words, a touch, a smile might lift their spirit. Help them feel a sense of this day of celebration.

In one room in the cancer unit I spoke with a woman fighting a battle with a cruel disease. We held hands and shared prayer. I asked her about Christmas in her childhood. She shared precious memories of Christmas with her large family of siblings. She smiled.

And then she told me, “Today is my birthday.” And her roommate said, “It’s mine, too!” I told them how incredibly special it was to be born on the day of Jesus’ birth.

None of the staff knew. I told the staff and they returned and we sang them Happy Birthday.

A Lonely Young Man

In the cancer ward, I ask whom to visit. They sent me to visit a young man who kept pushing the nurses away. My heart tells me this is why I woke up this morning. I come in and he is lost in a video game dismissive, distant.

I sit down preparing myself to stay for a while. I know God wants this young man to feel his presence, to know he is not alone, that he is cared for.

We chat. He can tell that I have moved in, that I feel that I belong, that I cannot imagine any more precious way to spend my time than to listen to him. We talk about what interests him, makes him smile, makes him curious. We talk about his spirit, how he deals with an illness that brings him to the hospital every month.

No, we did not talk about God and he did not sound like structured faith was part of his life. But for a few moments I hope he knew he was cared for and that he knew God was looking out for him.

The Holiday Project and Serving Cookies

The Holiday Project is a volunteer group that brings song to institutions like hospitals on holidays.

As I journey between ICUs on Christmas Day, I hear the world burst into song as I encounter 20 people walking through the hospital singing.  It’s the Holiday Project.  Since I lack all humility about my voice, I readily join them.  And I grab a tin of cookies I brought (of course David’s Cookies) and pass them out to nourish the families listening as we journey from unit to unit.

I then guide them to the ICUs and finally to our two birthday women in the cancer unit to give them a chorus of Happy Birthday and joyous Christmas carols.

Jewish Study on Christmas Eve

I do not want the Jewish patients to feel ignored. There is an older man who had worked in a school for most of his life. He has a warm countenance and smile. I have to give a sermon this Sabbath on the last chapters of Genesis – Jacob’s last message to his sons and his death. We reflect on what it means to make the most of one’s later years and what kind of message, legacy we want to leave for our families.

We talk about the nature of God and God’s love for humanity. And we study the end of Genesis and discuss why Joseph’s brothers ask for forgiveness after they have already been forgiven. That leads to a more extensive discussion of the wonder that God created man as an imperfect creature who is able to repent and seek forgiveness.

I learned a great deal from our meeting.

The Blessings of Welcoming the Stranger

When I think about my service on Christmas, I am reminded that the most important mitzvah (commandment) in the Old Testament is to welcome the stranger. Holidays help us feel community, family, and continuity. But for those alone, who are not visited, or for those in fragile health or trying to provide comfort for the sick, the holiday may heighten their sense of isolation, fear and estrangement.  Hopefully, my service helped some people feel God’s presence and comfort and gave them a sense of belonging and the wonder of the holiday.

And helped them feel they are not strangers in the hospital.

Category: Our Center, Patient Stories     Tags: ChaplainChristmasDavid BaltoholidaysJewishspiritual carevolunteer