Diversity Marks Spiritual Care at Roswell

Clergy of nearly 40 faith leaders — Hindu, Jewish, Buddhist, Native American, Muslim — help comfort patients at Roswell Park

By Jana Eisenberg

Beth Lenegan has directed spiritual care at Roswell Park since 1999.
Beth Lenegan has directed spiritual care at Roswell Park since 1999.

Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center recently announced that it’s changed the name of its traditional pastoral care program to “spiritual care.”

Beth Lenegan has been the director of the program since 1999. She has shepherded its growth to include a variety of services, as well as department expansions that now include four additional chaplains, a secretary, a Life Recorded coordinator, over 50 volunteers, and community clergy of nearly 40 faith leaders from different cultural and religious traditions.

The primary mission is patient visits — on the center’s hospital floors and in its clinics, as well as Roswell’s satellite locations in the suburbs. Patients’ interactions with the RPCCC spiritual care department start early and services are offered to both inpatients and outpatients.

“When patients first come in, we talk with them and do an assessment,” said Lenegan. “It’s rare that people say they don’t want any services; it’s a difficult time in life and people are seeking. It doesn’t matter what the diagnosis is — you’re facing mortality at some level. While some prefer to speak to people of their own faith group, most are happy to pray with any member of any faith.”

“I think we all have a spiritual nature,” she added. “One way of describing it is as the human response to some of life’s big questions, like, ‘why do we suffer?’ ‘how did we get here?’ and ‘is there an afterlife?’ Some may seek those answers in a ‘higher power,’ whether it’s religion, nature, music or meditation.

“When meeting with patients and caregivers, our team of community clergy does not evangelize — it’s not the time for that,” she said. “They are trained to minister to people and help work through their mysteries and any questions they have.”

Spiritual care can be of comfort to patients who come from outside the WNY area and find themselves without consistent support.

“It can be difficult for caregivers to drive back and forth from Pennsylvania or other parts of New York,” said Lenegan. “Patients are away from their church and social communities, so we support them as much as we can and as much as they’d like. The type and frequency of visits is based on patients’ assessments.”

Recording one’s travels

Lenegan broadened the understanding of spiritual care in a health care setting over the years. She’s introduced patient-caregiver retreats, giving people the opportunity to be outside a medical setting to gain perspective or just relax.

She’s also launched another potentially healing program, Life Recorded. Inspired by National Public Radio’s “Story Corps,” patients are invited to record their stories for themselves and their loved ones.

“Patients can include a caregiver or family member in their recording, and they can talk about any aspect of their life — it doesn’t have to be their cancer journey,” said Lenegan. “They are not defined by their cancer; they are also mothers, fathers, gardeners, woodworkers.”

Staff training is an important part of delivering effective spiritual care. “Diversity is key,” said Lenegan. “We invite patients of different faiths to speak to the team, to offer different perspectives, whether it’s Hindu, Jewish, Buddhist, Native American, or Muslim. We recognize that we are a team of diverse individuals, and that people from the community are diverse as well.”

Lenegan said an aspect of the job she didn’t expect is how patients impact her and her staff’s lives. “I’m inspired by patients,” she said. “A lot of them are so strong and positive; they and their families are also grateful, and want to give back to Roswell by volunteering.”

Another unexpected element? “We have a lot of joys —things like marriages and baptisms,” she said. “We can be part of those intimate moments. I feel appreciative for my team, for our patients and their families. We are fortunate to have the support that Roswell has given to spiritual care.”