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Walking the Path - Spiritual and Oncology Support

March 23, 2006
Living with a life-threatening illness like cancer can be as devastating to the family as it is to the patient. In response and support of cancer patients and their families, GBMC provides two service programs – Spiritual Support Services and the John M. McGovern Oncology Support Program. Staffs from both areas believe in the philosophy of mind, body and spirit, striving to provide comfort, hope and reassurance.

If desired, cancer patients can be supported spiritually and through a psychosocial approach with chaplains, counselors, nurses and social workers that can help patients walk the path of life throughout their illness. Both the spiritual support services and oncology support programs work to supplement care, helping families and patients by filling in when there may be no or few loved ones to support patients.

The Spiritual Dimension

“Through our staff and volunteers, patients come to see that they are not alone. They come to benefit from a spiritual dimension of healing and care,” says Chaplain Joe Hart, GBMC’s Director of Spiritual Support Services.

Hart and his staff of on-call clergy, Bikur Cholum volunteers, Eucharistic ministers, and spiritual support volunteers make over 500 visits to oncology patients each month. They visit them at the bedside and in treatment areas.
Chaplain Joe Hart counseling a family member


Shortly after a patient’s admission, an assessment is made to identify spiritual needs. Patients are helped to deal with various dimensions of their illness through spiritual support and reassurance.

Patients can practice religion in their own traditions - perhaps the observance of the Sabbath, taking communion or finding comfort in prayer and devotional materials.

In addition to providing spiritual support through companionship and religious expression, the program’s staff encourage patients to explore whatever else brings them happiness and calm – be it music, gardening or other reflective experiences.

Music is one of the most effective means of relaxation. Patients and families experience this form of comfort therapy during the patient’s hospitalization. “We believe that music is an excellent means of healing the human spirit and body,” says Chaplain Hart, who brings in local, volunteer musicians to sing, play at the bedside, or to perform in a concert series held in the Chapel.

Whether through companionship, song or prayer, patients realize they can find comfort and joy in life, even when they are sick.

Psychosocial Services

“Supporting patients in their journey means looking at the patient as a spiritual, physical and emotional being. You have to see the whole person to help enhance quality of life,” explains Donna Lewis, a nurse, pastoral counselor and Manager of the John M. McGovern Oncology Support Program.

The team at the Oncology Support Program focuses on psychosocial issues that impact patients and families by emphasizing both physical and emotional health and resource referral. Anxieties are diminished and new perspective is gained through education, one-on-one counseling and, for men with prostate cancer, a support group. Services are open to all GBMC oncology patients and there is no fee.

Donna Lewis, Oncology Support Services
Another way that nurses and social workers help patients is by addressing educational aspects of the illness. This is done through discussions as well as referrals to a wealth of information located in the program’s Cancer Resource Center. Literature there explains treatment, answers other medical questions and provides additional educational materials.

Focusing on emotional needs is as important as addressing a patient’s physical health. Lisa Shusterman, PhD, a psychologist at the Breast Care Center, says, “I believe that if a person has a sense of emotional stability, they will be more likely to live the best life that they can.”

With this in mind, Oncology Support staff counsel patients and families, listening open- mindedly, and help them to develop coping skills. The team offers emotional support in such areas as dealing with diagnosis, coping with side effects and living life to the fullest.

Speaking of the combined psychosocial and spiritual programming offered at the hospital, Chaplain Hart explains GBMC’s role with regard to its support program. “GBMC strives to provide whole life care to its patients and families, embracing the fullness of body, mind and spirit. This philosophy is respectful of the patient’s belief system in such a way that encourages the fullness of healing and restoration of health.”

Spiritual Support Services at GBMC

  • The GBMC chapel was dedicated in February 1966 to support prayer and worship. The Spiritual Support Services Department officially began in March 1996.
  • 117 staff support the program, which includes community clergy, volunteers who provide spiritual support and lay ministers.
  • In addition to having the Spiritual Support Services staff, the program facilitates the GBMC advisory board, composed of local clergy and lay representatives who come together and contribute to the spiritual well-being of patients within the hospital and hospice.

The John M. McGovern Oncology Support Program

  • The program originated with the support of Dr. and Mrs. John M. McGovern, hospital administration, oncology physicians and other staff. Launched in 1984, the program was originally geared toward assisting terminal patients. The focus has since expanded to include services for cancer patients at any stage of the illness so services will be available when desired.
  • The program’s primary services and components include one-on-one counseling, a prostate cancer support group, referrals to additional support such as Spiritual Support Services, and assistance in securing financial support, such as with medication and transportation expenses.
  • With the exception of medications and other services and commodities secured through vendors, all program services are free.

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