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Summer 2003

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Being there
Healing the spirit when the body is ailing

by Jens David Ohlin ’96

On her first day of student training as a hospital chaplain, Mary Ellen Eichmann, UWW ’98, arrived at New York University Medical Center to the news that a patient had just been placed on a “DNR” order. She had to have a nurse explain that “do not resuscitate” means if the patient’s heart or lungs fail, the doctors won’t use heroic measures to try to prolong life. He was on a morphine drip, and the end was in sight.
Mary Ellen Eichmann, UWW ’98, counsels a client in the hospital chapel.
     That first day Eichmann experienced what her job would mean—finding ways to comfort family and patients during their most difficult hours, to help the vulnerable find meaning when meaning seems most elusive. “It was baptism by fire,” she says. And there were barriers to overcome. The patient and his family were Buddhist. Although well-read in religious studies, Eichmann is Catholic. Also, the patient was Chinese and some members of the family couldn’t speak English. “I asked the daughter if she wanted me to a find a Buddhist chaplain,” Eichmann recalls. “She said, ‘Just be with us.’ It was a great lesson for me.”
     Chaplains, says Eichmann, “aren’t in a position to fix anything. We try to help people discover what’s present within them or what traditional rituals help strengthen them. We identify the spiritual themes people are thinking about—fear, anger, loss, hope—and help them process those themes.”
     Certified by the National Association of Catholic Chaplains in 2000, Eichmann is now a chaplain at Mercy Medical Center in Rockville Centre, N.Y., on Long Island. It’s been a homecoming of sorts for her, since she grew up in Rockville Centre and as a child was once a patient at Mercy.
     When she began Skidmore’s external degree program, Eichmann thought she might study social work, since she knew she wanted to help people. But she was drawn to spiritual issues and studied Buddhism and the New Testament with Skidmore professors Joel Smith and Tom Davis (formerly Skidmore’s own chaplain). She read books like Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s seminal On Death and Dying and Victor Frankl’s existential memoir of the Holocaust, Man’s Search for Meaning. Her UWW final project was titled “Spirituality and Suffering.”
     During a residency at New York Presbyterian Hospital, Eichmann helped pioneer new approaches for dealing with some of the most fragile patients—premature or critically ill babies in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). Traditionally, hospital chaplains focused on helping parents through the painful ordeal of watching their children struggle for life behind the glass of a neonatal isolette. “The parents live with great worry and fear, and they’re deprived of providing basic care for their infants,” Eichmann says. “This is a great loss; not unlike grieving the loss of a loved one. Some parents live with anticipatory grief—hoping for steady progress while fearing the loss of the baby. It’s complicated stuff.”
     But Eichmann soon realized that there was a need to look beyond the spiritual needs of mothers and fathers and minister to the tiny patients themselves. Eichmann found she could “get in touch at some spiritual level with the infants’ vulnerability.” So with the permission of the parents, Eichmann would sit with the infants, touch them, and pray for them, even when the parents weren’t around.
     Eichmann wrote a scholarly article on “the neonatal infant as parishioner,” which discussed the effects of her work on both the infants and the mothers. The results were complex. “While parents feel vulnerable and overwhelmed, they do not want to be protected from the pain,” she wrote. “They want to be told the truth. Ineffectual phrases such as ‘Don’t worry’ are hurtful, because there is no way NICU parents can stop worrying. But being faithful to these babies and their parents is the thing: return each day, connect with them, hear the latest news, offer emotional and spiritual support, and pray,” she says. “Listening and being with them in the hard times—that’s the key.”
     These are lessons Eichmann’s carried over into her work generally as a chaplain at Mercy Medical Center. “There are times when I don’t know what to do or say—that’s a given in all pastoral care,” Eichmann acknowledges. “How does one try to rationalize or explain the unexpected death of a child? Believe me, words are not called for at that moment. Instead, we listen as people tell the story, vent, and wring their hands.”
     Each situation at the hospital is unscripted, but Eichmann has found even the most uncertain encounters to be a rich source for her own spirituality. When a family from Iran came to the hospital, she got a copy of the Koran and started reading. She shared a particular passage with them, and the husband later told her how much this had meant to his wife. Once, after sitting for months with the family of a Jewish man who was dying of cancer, Eichmann was asked by the man’s wife to act as their rabbi. Eichmann did her best to fill the role and led a memorial service at a Jewish funeral home. “I didn’t know what to say and had no prep time, but I asked the patient’s wife if they believed in life after death. She answered, ‘Yes, of course.’” So Eichmann found a short story about redemption by Isaac Beshevis Singer and read it at the service.
     She says, “In all of the major religions—or in any religion—there is a wide spectrum of belief and experience and ritual. It’s a matter of listening, ascertaining the underlying religious theme, and then asking what the patient needs or wants.”
     Eichmann concludes, “I believe that our bodies are limited. At times they break down. It’s at these moments that you can find God with you in a more profound way.” u

Jens Ohlin ’96 recently earned a Ph.D. in philosophy at Columbia University and is now a law student there.


© 2003 Skidmore College