A Catholic hospital made me healthy &mdash albeit uncomfortable

Not long ago, I found myself checking into Seton Medical Center in Daly City, where I couldn’t help noticing an abundance of crucifixes prominently displayed on walls around the building.

I have a Jewish primary-care physician. I selected him because he is in my network, has an office close to my home, and he has my mother’s maiden name. I know we are not related. The only time the topic of religion came up was when he complimented me on losing a few pounds and I told him it was all thanks to the “Yom Kippur diet.”

But I didn’t really get to select my hospital. In fact, that decision was made on the basis of my health-care network. In my case, only 60 percent of the tab is covered when using an out-of-network hospital, lab or doctor. For that reason, I checked into Seton.

As a Jew, it is hard for me to see how someone full of pain and anxiety could feel comforted by the sight of a man nailed to a cross.

Would a Jewish hospital have a lot of Stars of Davids on the wall? Would it have pictures of Moses getting burned by that famous burning bush? Or was it a bush?

I thought about this topic when I had to undergo an operation that my surgeon jokingly referred to as a “roto rooter.” It’s a surgery for men who have prostate problems. That’s as graphic as I think I need to be.

I felt a bit uneasy in the hospital, yet I belong to a small synagogue that rents a church for Shabbat services. The church just has a simple cross, but it’s still a church, not a temple, so I figured I could live with all those crucifixes for a couple of days in the hospital.

Besides, the odds of finding a Jewish hospital in Northern California these days are as good as finding an orange on a seder plate. Oh wait a minute, feminist seders have the fruit.

I believe the reason we had Jewish hospitals dates back to the time when members of the tribe were not welcome — or were uncomfortable — in many hospitals or medical schools.

Now that the chosen people are well represented in the medical profession the need for Jewish hospitals has declined. I suppose that’s a good thing.

But still, there is discomfort. I had the first of what would be many religious moments when the admitting clerk asked me my religion. Most places aren’t allowed to ask that question, but I didn’t mind because I wanted to be sure I’d get directed to the right mortuary if something unexpected happened to me.

I had a couple more religious moments filling out an advanced health care directive (everyone should have one). It told my doctors that I didn’t want to be kept alive if I suffered brain damage or had some other disastrous problem.

When I signed that document and the standard form that warned me there was a slight chance of death, it made me think back to the Yom Kippur prayer that talked about who shall live and who shall die, who shall be unhappy, etc.

The next religious moment came a few days later preparing for surgery when a tiny but kindly looking elderly nun who looked like she could have been my strict Hebrew school teacher’s twin came by and asked if I would like a blessing. I declined and wondered if she now was hoping that I would burn in hell. Probably not.

When you are lying on your back and being wheeled into surgery, its time to start worrying a little, but my worry was diminished by the anxiety-relieving drugs being pumped into my system.

Still, it is a different perspective on life, and I silently prayed that everything would be OK. I’m the kind of guy who doesn’t always follow the text in the prayerbooks.

I improvised the way I do on a turbulent airline flight — promising to lead a decent life if I could make it through this experience.

The surgery was the easiest part.

All I remember is the doctor talking about his iPod and then I woke up in the recovery room.

Then I realized I couldn’t move my legs, and I had a brief terrifying moment until I remembered that the anesthetic hadn’t worn off.

When it finally did wear off and I could move again I said a silent Shehechiyanu and Baruch HaShem. Something I don’t say very often.

I guess it’s true there are no atheists in foxholes (if they still exist) and on turbulent flights and in hospitals.

Then it was off to my seventh-floor room with a crucifix above my bed, a view of the 280 freeway, and — how inspirational — the Colma cemeteries. From my vantage point, they all looked alike.

On the positive side of my hospital stay, it was truly inspirational seeing the sunrise over San Bruno Mountain, and the total eclipse of the moon the next day while watching the World Series. The Red Sox win may have been another miracle.

I thought about asking the staff to cover up the crucifix above me, but I dropped the idea figuring hell (if there is one) would freeze over before they are taken down.

When the Catholic chaplain came by and asked if I wanted a blessing, I politely declined and asked if a rabbi was available. She said they call the local synagogue when one is needed, but I figured that since I would only be there a couple days, it wasn’t necessary.

I adopted Gloria Gaynor’s motto and started silently humming her disco classic ” I will survive,” and worked it into the prayer rotation.

The chaplain then went to offer communion to the other man in the room, which I heard clearly through the curtain.

The rest of my stay wasn’t too bad, but it’s good to be home. Now I’m praying that the part of the bill not covered by my insurance won’t cost me an arm and a leg. And of course, I hope I won’t have to go back.


Joel Kamisher is a radio news reporter in San Francisco; he can be reached at [email protected].

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