Tuesday, August 16, 2022

It does not happen often. But it has happened before. The Jewish chaplain and the priest—both called at the same time to the same patient.

The short text to me and Father Daniel provided no other details than: “Martin Green, CCU Room 1, go ASAP.”

I quickly arrived at the CCU (cardiac care unit) before my colleague Father Daniel. Usually when receiving messages such as those, the expected scene in the room is quite grim and ominous. However, this room was atypical. Everyone seemed to be smiling, talking and laughing. I felt that I was interrupting something or even possibly was in the wrong room. I was immediately introduced to Martin, age 68, who was lying flat in the bed, connected to many tubes. His wife, Carol, and their two children were surrounding him.

Carol informed me that Martin had suffered a massive heart attack and, due to many complications, was unfortunately unable to receive further surgeries. The doctors had done everything they could. According to their medical assessments, Martin had only hours left to live. Martin was very much aware and understood his prognosis. In fact, he was the one who had initiated the call for me to come.

Father Daniel arrived minutes later.

“Who called for him?” Martin asked in a joking manner as soon as he noticed the man with the black shirt and white priestly collar standing by the doorway. “I did!” said Carol. “I wanted him here, too. For me,” she said with a smile. It was then that I learned that Martin was Jewish and his wife was Catholic. Though this family had not emphasized any form of religion within their family until now, the spiritual and religious support was something that they wanted at this time.

We all spent several moments talking together, reflecting on all sorts of memories in their marriage and memories within the broader family. Father Daniel and I heard of wonderful vacations and special holiday get-togethers. Martin told us briefly about his longtime career as a high school teacher. And of course we learned what an amazing husband, father, grandfather and friend he was to all. There was a “humble pride” exhibited by Martin as Father Daniel and I listened attentively to Martin’s family rave about him. But there was also a palpable look of trepidation on Martin’s face, knowing quite well that his death was rapidly approaching.

After a pause in the conversation, I turned to Martin and asked: “Martin, what can I do for you at this time?” Without a hesitation, he responded, “A prayer.”

I explained the Vidui (the Jewish end-of-life prayer) and told Martin how I would recite this prayer in Hebrew and then translate it into English. I offered the family to participate as well, but they preferred only for me to recite it. Though I have recited Vidui many times with patients, I have not had too many opportunities to recite the prayer with a person who is awake, alert and fully conversing, but yet given such an imminent, poor prognosis.

While I was on one side of the bed, Carol on the other, Father Daniel standing next to the two children by the foot of the bed, I began to recite the prayer. From the corner of my eye, I noticed tears streaming down the faces of the children. Carol was trying to hold back her tears, but had difficulty when she heard me say the verse in Psalm 23: “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil because you are with me.”

When I reached the near end of the prayer, I explained to Martin that I needed him to repeat after me. Slowly, word by word, Martin repeated the words of the Shema. At its conclusion, Martin looked at me and said with a loud and clear voice, “Thank you.”

At that moment, I had a feeling that there was more that needed to be expressed and I wanted to give Martin the space to do so. However, time was limited. I kindly asked the family to leave for a mere five minutes to allow for some private time with Martin.

Right after the family left the room, Martin immediately stated with a matter-of-fact sort of tone, “I have not said those words of the Shema since my bar mitzvah. Over 50 years ago.”

His words sent shivers down my spine.

Did he feel guilt? Regret? Fear? Did he feel a reconnection with his faith? Did he feel a sense of comfort and solace? Maybe a combination of all. He was quiet. I stayed quiet, too.

After several seconds of silence, I reassured Martin that by him saying the words of the Shema he was affirming his Jewish identity and connection. I reminded him that every single Jew is guaranteed a portion in the world to come and, most importantly, that God is with him.

And then there was more silence. A silence so strong that it spoke louder than words. It was a silence that was of pure connection. After several seconds, Martin squeezed my hand, stared into my eyes and said one more time, “Thank you.”

Martin passed away several hours later, as the doctors had said.

Carol called me the next day and through her tears expressed her shock and disbelief—how could this be? Martin was just with us—talking, laughing and joking. Indeed, it really was hard to comprehend. Carol expressed her gratitude to the amazing staff for doing everything they could to help Martin physically. She thanked Father Daniel and me for being there to support each member of the family with their emotional and spiritual needs.

As for me, I could not stop thinking about Martin for many days after his passing. I know that those words of the Shema (which Martin unfortunately had only said one other time in his life) had truly impacted him in a very profound way. I would like to think, and sincerely do hope, that it brought reconnection, reassurance and the comfort that was needed as Martin knowingly was leaving this world and entering the next.

Debby Pfeiffer is a board-certified chaplain working at Morristown Medical Center through its affiliation with the Jewish Federation of Greater Metrowest, NJ. She resides in Bergenfield with her husband and children. She can be reached at [email protected]

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