Charbel Ibrahm sits quietly in his office at Montreal’s Saint Justine Hospital. His rare moment of peace is interrupted by a phone call. A young native boy is gravely ill. Without a needed transplant, he may well die. This is a children’s hospital.
Charbel heads off to join the sick boy’s family.
He is not a doctor, nor a nurse, nor a psychologist. So what is his job?
He is a “spiritual healing intervener.” It’s a weird name for an often misunderstood profession.
Spiritual healing interveners work within Quebec’s health care system. Their mission: to support families in a variety of ways – spiritual, moral, psychological. They work in hospices and hospitals, and elsewhere.
These interveners are not there to preach. They represent no specific faith. Today’s hospitals are non-denominational, and so are they. They do the work once carried out by hospital chaplains. Today’s Quebec hospital chapels have been converted into open places of quiet refuge.
Not a Priest
Charbel helps patients find some sense, some meaning in what they’re going through. One question he says he hears a lot: “Why me? I eat well, I exercise, and yet I have cancer… Why?”
More and more hospitals look at the patient’s entire being rather than just their physical ailments. Emotional well-being is taken into account. “It’s one long humanization process,” Charbel says. And contrary to what you might assume, many who seek his support aren’t religious. “The spiritual is all around us,” he says. “A non-believer can have a rich spiritual life. People don’t want to be trapped in categories.”
Charbel is present at all of Sante-Justine Hospital first-line care units. He visits the intensive care unit, as well as the hemato-oncology ward and the mother-child ward. At interdisciplinary meetings, he is referred cases to him that call upon his specific skill set. He then approaches designated families and patients to offer his help.
First and foremost, Charbel is there to listen. He helps the afflicted find some meaning, some shred of sense, in what they’re going through. Far from being superficial, his assistance can bring deep healing to the afflicted, he explains: “When someone is sick, it changes their whole identity. The body and its abilities change.” Getting the patient to accept this new identity is his ultimate mission
Not long before we talked to him, Charbel helped a couple mourn the loss of their stillborn child. He told the grieving parents: “We can’t deny that your child made a passage on this Earth.” So he held a “love celebration.” It was a way to let the parents vent their emotions. During this rite, they revisited the pregnancy. The parents expressed their expectations. They had objects intended for the child, which gave the rite a material dimension. Together they retraced the story of the life that they had hoped their child would lead on Earth.
The couple gave their baby a name. Charbel let the parents’ new reality sink in. Silence played an important role, but so did touching.
At such ceremonies Charbel will cite passages requested by the parents, be they religious or atheistic. These words are often vital to address the transcendent.
These are some of the tool of Charbel’s trade – tools he uses to support patients and their families. Nonetheless, warns Charbel, he and his colleagues “are not ritual dispensers!” Their profession has its limits. If hospital personnel ignore what he has to offer, he can’t help anyone. Many still see his role as that of a religious chaplain or a traveling preacher.
To set people straight, Charbel holds training sessions with doctors and nurses. The goal is to make his role understood, so that appropriate referrals can be made.
It’s not only patients who seek to make sense of the things they witness and experience around a hospital, he points out. On request, he also works with hospital staff. Their daily contact with suffering and death can lead them to knock on his door.
Spiritual healing interveners are university trained for their role. Mélany Bisson is head of the Association des intervenantes et intervenants en soins spirituels diu Québec, (AIIISSQ), the professional association representing spiritual healing interveners. She says that most of her members hold a graduate diploma, a DESS in the field of health, spirituality and bioethics. To enroll in a DESS program, one must already have an undergraduate degree. The DESS is often completed by night students already working in the health care field.
The DESS curriculum trains students to intervene spiritually in the broader sense. Students complete at least one clinical residency before being fully qualified, and hired on as spiritual healing interveners.
When a patient refuses a medical procedure for religious reasons it can make for headline news. When it happens, a spiritual healing intervener will be called in. Bisson recalls the time when she was working at the Université de Montréal Hospital Centre (CHUM) and a Jehovah’s Witness refused a blood transfusion.
The hospital respected the patient’s will, as it was in keeping with his values. It was not Bisson’s job to convince this patient to abandon his religious beliefs. Rather, it was up to her to make sure that he understood the consequences of his decision. The patient had to decide whether or not these consequences would also be consistent with his belief system.
The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms recognizes the right of an adult patient to refuse medical procedures for reasons of religious faith. For children under 14, these decisions are left in the hands of the parents. For minors 14 and older, acceptance of medical procedures is automatically assumed. But if a patient 14-17 years of age refuses treatment on religious grounds, his or her parents can veto this rejection.
A doctor who objects to a refusal of treatment can appeal to the courts. In cases of reasonable doubt, the doctor must choose the best option for the patient. But the doctor must first prove that there is some doubt as to the patient’s true religious beliefs. The law is actually very ambiguous on this point. Sect members have been known to exert enormous pressure on patients to refuse life-saving medical procedures.
The work of a spiritual healing intervener is often brutal. Sainte-Justine is a children’s hospital. But Charbel sees his work as a “beautiful challenge.” he has grown as a result. His patients praise his openness and empathy.
For his part, Charbel works hard to avoid smothering those he helps with the dogma of any one religion.