A New Spiritual Language

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At 69, William Campion had been holding onto his life by a thread. He’d been told that, to stay alive, he needed two new lungs. And, thanks to the modern miracle of science and medicine, he got them—at New York Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center. Yet, after his successful surgery, his body needed to learn how to breathe again—with the help of a machine. The machine inflated and deflated the lungs, using a tube inserted into Campion’s throat, which meant he had no way to communicate.

So this life-saving procedure left him, for a while, in an isolated, silent, nearly helpless state of recuperation—with little way to communicate with anyone around him. As time passed, he felt scared, alone, and lost, a man who had brushed up against death, now with a new future, yet still knowing how everything depended on his body’s learning to use its two new lungs. What if something went wrong?

In the midst of his fears and uncertainties, his dread and emotional isolation, one of New York Presybterian’s chaplains, Joel Nightingale Berning, arrived at Campion’s bedside. He handed the convalescent a small board covered with pictures—the equivalent of elaborate emojis—and told Campion what they meant. They were a kind of sign language, a lexicon of spiritual pain.

“Are you in spiritual pain?” Berning asked. Campion nodded.

“OK, point to the number that will tell me how intense the pain is,” Berning said. (The scale ran from 0 to 10.) Campion pointed to 8.

“Now tell me what you would like for me to do,” Berning said.

Point to one image, and the chaplain might give Campion a hug. Point to another, and Berning would pray aloud for the patient. Point to yet another, and someone from another religious tradition, or no tradition, would show up at Campion’s door to offer comfort and counseling. A prayer is all Campion wanted, and silently, he joined the pastor as Berning recited the Lord’s Prayer.

It’s hard to believe a communication tool so simple and basic, and obviously needed, was only recently developed. It’s the brainchild of Berning, a 32-year-old Catholic priest, and another of the hospital’s chaplains, Seigan Ed Glassing, a Zen Buddhist monk, who created the pictographs. The Zen monk was the one who did the heavy lifting. He came up with images meant to signify thoughts as difficult to visualize as “blessing” or “make me an altar” or “please read me a poem.” But he did, and now the medical center has licensed out the use of this little visual vocabulary of spiritual pain to Vidatek and Acuity Medical Inc. Together, they will mass produce the tool for use in health care facilities everywhere.

When word gets around about it, sales of the board should be brisk. It really works. In the ICU at New York Presbyterian, pastors have become “consultants for life.” In the past, they arrived in the most extreme circumstances, mostly along with the approach of death. They gave last rights or comforted the families of those who had recently died. Now, they are bringing hope and faith to those most in need of it, and in the process, bringing many patients back to life, emotionally and spiritually, as their bodies recover from illness and surgery.

A study last year, published in the Annals of the American Thoracic Society, surveyed 50 patients who had used the board to communicated their spiritual needs. They reported that it helped decrease their anxiety, while 81 percent of patients felt more at peace, and three-quarters of those surveyed felt more “connected with what is sacred.” The study concluded that the communication board significantly reduced anxiety and stress during and after ICU admission.

Before he was discharged, Campion was pleased to see Chaplain Berning at his door again. He wanted to know how things were going. Campion still had a tube in his neck, so they used the board to communicate once more. What did the patient report? “I feel comfortable. I feel loved.” He can thank New York Presbyterian for the comfort. He can thank that board, and the ingenuity and compassion of its creators, for the love.

Peter Georgescu is the author of Capitalists Arise, out in April. He can be found at Good Reads.

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