Finding peace in troubling times

Lise Johnson lies comfortably in her hospital bed, gazing toward the big, bright window in her room.

“I feel such a feeling of peace,” she says. “I’m not afraid.”

Lise is accompanied by her husband, Al, and their daughter, Nancy, on Ward C3 at the Juravinski Hospital. Last November, Lise was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Her symptoms arrived very suddenly – severe stomach pain that she assumed was the result of extreme indigestion. A diagnosis of cancer was the last thing the family expected.

On Lise’s windowsill sits an oversized fishbowl, its clear glass reflecting the soft, white light of the crisp winter morning. It’s hard to miss, and not just because of its size. At first glance, the bowl appears to be full of candy, filled to the brim with a rainbow of tiny, coloured pieces. But, upon closer inspection, it becomes clear that the bowl is actually filled with hundreds upon hundreds of tiny origami cranes, each in a different colour and pattern. There are 1,000 of them in total, basking together in the streams of sunlight spilling in through Lise’s window.

In Japanese lore, the crane is viewed as a sacred bird and is believed to live for 1,000 years. The act of folding 1,000 paper cranes grants the maker a wish, usually for good health or prolonged life.

On Christmas Eve, Lise’s daughter, Nancy, received a phone call from one of her colleagues. A group of her co-workers had a gift for her mother, whom they had never met. Expecting a card or perhaps an arrangement of flowers, Nancy was overwhelmed when her colleagues presented her with the cranes, which they had been diligently folding for weeks.

Lise was just as surprised when Nancy brought the cranes to her bedside.

“They are just beautiful,” says Lise. “When I first saw them, peace fell over me right away.”

Lise was given a few options to treat her cancer, although none were expected to significantly extend her life. She declined treatment, opting instead to spend her time enjoying the presence of family and friends at home.

Since she received the cranes, Lise says she’s felt at peace with her reality.
“Each day, I wake up in the morning and look at them,” she says. “I feel such a feeling of peace, hope and courage, knowing love was put into each special fold. I’m no longer afraid – my faith brings me that.”

Ann Vander Berg, chaplain at Juravinski Hospital and Cancer Centre (JHCC), met Lise during her stay in hospital. Ann says that people often use physical objects as a means to connect with deeper spiritual and/or religious beliefs. But, she’s never before witnessed a gift of 1,000 cranes.

“I’ve just never seen anything like it,” says Ann. “The ways in which people receive spiritual care are diverse, and this one is quite unique.”

As a chaplain in Spiritual Care at Hamilton Health Sciences (HHS), Ann provides support to patients and their families during difficult times. At the Juravinski site, Ann is accompanied by fellow chaplain Dave Jones.

“Basically, our job is to help patients utilize their own spiritual resources, whatever they may be,” says Ann.

In the face of illness or when approaching end-of-life, individuals often turn to their spiritual belief system to make sense of their circumstances. They may be experiencing feelings of fear, uncertainty, regret, or even curiosity about what’s to come. In difficult times, there are many questions to be answered.

“We’re all rational beings – we naturally want to make sense of what’s happening around us,” says Dave. “Our role as chaplains is to listen to the patient, help them interpret their experiences, and advocate for their wishes.”

At HHS, chaplains are available to support patients of all spiritual and religious traditions. Services include emotional support and grief counseling, and coordination of rituals and services. Referrals to a chaplain are usually made by a member of the health care team, such as the physician or nurse.

Lillian Curtis is a chaplain at McMaster Children’s Hospital. Lillian says that, although a child’s understanding of spirituality may differ greatly from an adult’s, the chaplain’s approach to providing care and support is quite often the same.

“Conversations with our younger patients are often focused on what they like to do, and what gives and maintains meaning in their lives,” says Lillian. “Getting to the same level as the patient is very important.”

As with adult care, the spiritual and religious needs of younger patients and their families are diverse. These might include rituals, such as baptismal services at a child’s bedside when a crisis arises, or blessings for an infant who is unable to make the transition from womb to the outer world.

“These rituals are about giving expression to a reality and help to mark both birth and death,” says Lillian.

Often, the chaplain is available simply to offer an open ear.

“We want families to feel that someone understands and cares for them, whatever the situation,” says Lillian. “To us, all persons are equal and all deserve a purposeful place in this world.”

At HHS, chaplains are available on-call 24/7, and spiritual centres are located on the main level of each hospital site. The centres are open at all times for prayer, meditation or quiet reflection.

For more information about spiritual and religious care and chaplain services at Hamilton Health Sciences, refer to the Spiritual Care page on the HHS Intranet.