Extended hospital stay inspires patient to pursue Masters of Divinity; now a spiritual caregiver at St. Paul’s
George Keulen will never forget this moment:
“At 5:00AM, the call came. I would get a double lung transplant. It had been an 18-month wait. I had spent more than six of those months at St. Paul’s, too sick to be at home. Two of my nurses and a member of the team that took care of my I.V. had gathered at my door. They wanted to share this moment with me. One of them was crying. The other two had huge smiles on their faces. They were so happy for me. That one moment, shared with people who had helped me so much, represented my entire experience at St. Paul’s. This is what the people who work at St. Paul’s are like.”
That fateful early morning was George’s 201st day in hospital—and that phone call marked the end of a long and difficult journey for George that had begun at birth with a diagnosis of cystic fibrosis, the genetic disorder that affects primarily the lungs.
The positive of such a diagnosis was that treatment was able to begin immediately and, thanks to this early intervention, George enjoyed a healthy childhood. His CF did not catch up to him until his early twenties, when his lung function began to decline. By 2008, when he was 26, George was on the wait list for a double lung transplant.
That transplant would occur a year and a half later, on June 18, 2010, and what followed for George was a new beginning. Inspired by his experience, he went on to compete a Masters of Divinity and returned to St. Paul’s—not as patient—but as spiritual caregiver.
Much of George’s life and work today is linked to those 200 days he spent in hospital, the confusion and fear he experienced, the not knowing, but also the care that lifted his spirits throughout his medical journey, and the joy he experienced on the 201st day, when this new chance at life was given to him by someone he would never meet.
“My gift of 200 days,” says George, “it gave me perspective I can bring to my work today helping patients and their families, a perspective I could never have had otherwise. My nurses and care team at St. Paul’s taught me. They taught me that every time I enter a room, or pull back a curtain, I am stepping onto sacred ground.”
When he is with patients, this profound sense of respect defines George, and much of what he says speaks to the importance of individuality, of the person in the hospital bed having the same dignity, value, complexity and meaning that he has. George felt that the doctors and nurses of St. Paul’s had this ability, the ability to affirm your individuality and see you as a person, even though, as he says, “you are in this huge institution with all these other people.”
“Sometimes this can be taking an extra moment to hear something you have to say,” says George, “but it can also be your doctor or nurse sharing something about themselves with you. Telling you something about their day, no matter how mundane. These simple moments affirm that you are a person; that even in this giant health care system, your personhood is recognized and respected.”
Dr. Christopher E. De Bono, vice president of Mission, Ethics, Spirituality & Indigenous Health at Providence Health Care, points out that patients at St. Paul’s benefit not just from medical staff like George describes, but also from the team of spiritual and pastoral caregivers.
“I’m proud of our spiritual and pastoral care staff,” says Dr. De Bono. “And while they can never actually walk in another person’s shoes, they can deeply connect with the experience of isolation and loneliness that patients can feel. Then we have our doctors, nurses and other allied healthcare staff, who have a commitment to caregiving that patients sense and respond to, just as George describes. It’s as if a human being’s experience of fragility, the kind that often comes with illness, shines a light on how best to help others.”
And while George speaks to the importance of relating and understanding when he is with patients, he also speaks to the importance of silence and the role it plays.
“The confusion and mystery of what’s happening when you’re seriously ill, especially when you don’t know the answers, these are times when you want to be there for a patient just to be an ally, a stabilizer. That doesn’t mean having answers. We don’t always have answers. So sometimes it means just listening, or just being with them.”
This mention of the importance of just listening reminds George of a night in his hospital bed, back when his double lung transplant was still a year away, still an unknown, when he heard something outside. He listened…
“It was 2009. I was in St. Paul’s over Christmas, in a room on the fifth floor facing Burrard Street. On the night the Lights of Hope were lit, I remember hearing a lot of noise outside but I didn’t know what was going on. All of a sudden, fireworks go off right outside my window. It was amazing to see. Then I hear cheering. So often in the hospital, you feel isolated. It’s like people don’t want to think about people who are sick. Perhaps it’s that sickness reminds us of our own mortality. But for that moment, amidst the lights and the cheers and the crowd below, I was reminded that people do care. Even though we may not like to think about being sick, we want to help those who are. We care about each other. This brought great comfort to me. I was very sick at that time, very frightened, but that night a spirit of hope stirred within me.”
This year, Lights of Hope celebrates its 20th anniversary. Bring hope to patients at St. Paul’s by making your gift now.