Spiritual Care Gives ALS Patients Extra Comfort

The Rev. Pamela Lazor, MDiv, speaks with patient Toni Joy Brown during one of the ALS Program’s recent clinic days.

Partnership with Spiritual Care Department Brings Additional Layer of Compassion to ALS Program Clinic Days

Donald Stanley and his wife Dee were looking for answers, like any family forced to face Lou Gehrig's disease.

They found them at Cedars-Sinai, along with something else: A genuine smile and a kind spirit.

That's what Donald Stanley remembers about his encounter with the Rev. Pamela Lazor, MDiv, when she walked into their room to check on Dee, who was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease, in December 2012.

"It was a pleasant surprise," Donald said. "We didn't have a long conversation with her, but we were able to discuss my wife's condition and we were able pray for her and pray for some type of answer for the disease."

Such a connection is the mission of Cedars-Sinai's Spiritual Care Department, which offers its services during the ALS Program's weekly clinic day as part of their multidisciplinary approach to clinical care. Other members of the team include neurologists, physical and occupational therapists, a registered dietitian and a research coordinator.

The chaplains' clinic-day involvement is one of the clearest representations of the holistic care the program aims to provide patients.

The Rev. Pamela Lazor speaks with neurologist Ankit Nayyar, MD, as she makes rounds at a recent ALS Program clinic day.

"When the body becomes ill, the whole person is impacted – especially with an illness as devastating as ALS," said Lazor, Cedars-Sinai's clinical pastoral education supervisor. "The presence of the chaplain reminds the patient and his or her family and caregivers that we care about them as whole people."

That's especially important, because ALS attacks the whole body. The disease affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord that control muscle function, causing weakness and muscle atrophy. Life expectancy after diagnosis for most patients is about five years.

That whole-person approach to care at Cedars-Sinai extends beyond a specific religion, said Rabbi Jason Weiner, BCC, senior rabbi and manager of the Spiritual Care Department.

"We feel that it's vital for a person to feel fully respected and fully understood, without imposing," he said. "Having someone who can appreciate or work with their spiritual concerns, or crises, or even celebrations can transform their experience of illness and healing. One of the things we say is that even when a cure isn't possible, healing is still possible."

Chaplains go through clinical pastoral education, which is comprised of a minimum of 1,600 hours of supervised training at an accredited site, according to Weiner. They are professionals who work with spiritual aspects of health, wellness, illness and suffering. Working in a hospital allows them to be familiar with the medical realities, he added.

The ALS Program's clinic day team members also are welcome to meet with the chaplain. In the room where the team collaborates between patients, the chaplain will often leave a basket of teas and cookies called "tea for the soul."

Lazor said even though the staff may be busy with patients, it's good for them to know there is someone at the clinic they can talk to.

"It is impossible to do work such as this without being personally impacted by it. We ourselves suffer when we see someone else suffering, especially when we get to know that person," she said. "The chaplain is there to listen if staff want to talk, or process their own sadness or questions of meaning and hope."

Jeffrey Wertheimer, PhD, ABPP-CN, a clinical neuropsychologist, said coping with change is big part of the patient experience. Assisting the patient with adjustment to functional change and the existential aspects related to his or her condition is an important element in treating one's overall well-being.

"The chaplain services provide not just a patient-centric approach, but a patient- and staff-centric approach, which I think is very important," Wertheimer said. "Making sure that we, as a whole team, are taking care of ourselves while taking care of the patients' needs is really valuable."

Weiner sums up the chaplains' purpose with one theme: Compassion.

"We just want them to know that someone cares. There's nothing necessarily religious about that, and no other reason than that," he said. "As much as all of the staff cares, and that's extremely important, a chaplain's only reason for being there is to show compassion."

The Rev. Pamela Lazor meets with clinical neuropsychologist Jeffrey Wertheimer, PhD, ABPP-CN, during a recent ALS Program clinic day in the Neuromuscular Disorders Program.

Editor's Note: Two patients in this feature, Dee Stanley and Toni Joy Brown, who appears in the cover image, have passed away since the time of reporting. Cedars-Sinai is grateful that they allowed us to tell their stories.