A man arrived at a local hospital’s front desk. He had trouble remembering some things. He seemed anxious. He admitted he’d been drinking.
So, who cares, right? Just a guy who drank too much.
But he was standing there. At the hospital reception desk. An admitting receptionist didn’t know what to do.
She paged Chaplain Karen Lieberman. Lieberman came, took the man aside, and talked with him. She then asked other staff what the procedure was for this.
“He’s not our patient,” was one response. “Of course, he doesn’t remember; he was drunk,” was another.
Lieberman talked with the man, to help him feel seen and be seen. She contacted the hospital administrator and the man with the memory lapse was soon admitted, even though he was both homeless and cashless.
Maybe any chaplain could have pulled that off. Or maybe Lieberman did it by bringing together all the pieces of who she is, devoting a spectacular skill set to the needs of people in their worst moments. This chaplain is, yes, certified for her work, which is now her full-time employment, after leaving her career as a Stanford-trained lawyer.
Lieberman has been a chaplain for 12 years now, board-certified by Neshama: Association of Jewish Chaplains. She’s assisted people of all faiths, but she’s run into uniquely Jewish issues, too.
There was that patient who mystified staff by sending a family member to wander around looking for help instead of just pressing the call button – on Shabbat.
There have been end-of-life decisions where Jewish culture and a Jewish approach to survival seemed to come into play.
There are modesty issues. There are food issues.
There were those moments with Holocaust survivors, with words never before spoken aloud.
“I think a lot about our tradition. And also, about what my presence means for Jewish patients,” she said. “You can’t be with the community. The community is here to be with you and will continue to be with you. That can be extremely healing. It doesn’t have to be about any specific skills that I’m bringing. It’s about what my presence in that room can represent for people.”
After law school and a federal clerkship, Lieberman became a litigator. She worked for the city of Chicago and then a Chicago law firm.
This is not a story about a lawyer who hated the law. She liked it. She did it for years. She taught at Marquette Law School. And yet.
“I had sort of this nagging sense that something was missing,” she recalled. “That maybe there was something else I was supposed to be doing with my life.”
She enrolled in a master’s program in Jewish studies with the Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership in Chicago. Initially it was just learning for its own sake.
“I met a few fellow students who worked as chaplains,” she recalled, but it wasn’t a career choice yet.
Then, in 2007, Lieberman’s husband, Larry, died unexpectedly. He was 48.
She had three children; at the time they were 17, 14 and 11. Suddenly, everything was upside down.
“From the second my husband died there were a few very special friends who literally and figuratively came alongside me,” she said.
Two years after her husband’s death, she enrolled in a program to become a board-certified chaplain.
“It was through this traumatic encounter with death that I learned something essential abut life and the role that we potentially play in it, or at least the role that I understood I was supposed to be playing in it,” she said.
“When people are in the hospital dealing with some sort of crisis or major life transition I am there too.”
It’s several years ago and a patient in his early 50s has died. The spouse is shocked, and understandably so.
“She came to the hospital and a team of us gathered with her in a private consultation room,” Lieberman said.
“She expressed … that she really wanted his wedding ring. She was very afraid that his wedding ring wouldn’t come off his hand.”
Apparently, it never did.
A nursing manager interpreted the discussion as a task and offered to cut the ring off.
“She didn’t want it cut into pieces,” Lieberman said. “I assured her we would get the ring off. We would use soap and water or vegetable oil. Or whatever we would have to do, we would get the ring off his finger.”
There was no jury to decide this particular case, only a chaplain with a ring in her hand that she had managed to twist off the deceased’s finger.
The verdict in this case was a hug.