"A Healing Person": Roswell Park's Spiritual Care Volunteers

If you've ever spent time in a hospital — as an inpatient or visitor — you've probably seen volunteers offering communion and other religious services to patients. At Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center, these special volunteers with the Spiritual Care Department offer a type of support that for many patients is part of their healing. Oftentimes, simply by lending an ear.

"In some little way, I try to bring comfort to patients through listening, consoling in a non-judgmental way and praying with them according to their desires and beliefs, as well as offering and giving Holy Communion when desired," says Mary McCrackin, a volunteer of nearly 20 years. Mary currently serves as a Minister of Holy Communion, Spiritual Care Visitor, and member of the End-of-Life and Bereavement Support team.

Patients often have complicated emotions about their diagnosis and treatment. Spiritual Care volunteers may help patients understand their feelings in ways that other members of their care team may not. "I can't heal patients physically, but I can talk them through the mental side of their treatment," says Mike Szematowicz, a leukemia survivor and seven-year volunteer as a Eucharistic Minister and a Patient Coach for those undergoing stem cell or bone marrow transplant. "I think one of the biggest things I can do for patients is to help them keep a positive attitude, especially when they have a long recovery from their treatment — as I did. I've found that people who have spirituality in their lives have an edge when it comes to being able to stay positive."

Before his cancer diagnosis at age 65, Mike was preparing for his retirement. In his free time, Mike planned to assist the minister of his Orchard Park parish with some pastoral hospital and nursing home visits — but his diagnosis put his retirement plans on hold. After he recovered from his bone marrow transplant, Mike reached out to the Spiritual Care Department to see what he could do to help make a difference in his fellow Roswell Park patients’ lives.

"In a way, I was already planning on doing some of this work. I think the fact that I'm a survivor can sometimes give people going through treatment a lift and reassurance that things will be okay. I always try to tell patients: Sometimes, you might feel like you're the only one who's going through what you're going through. But your care team probably sees patients just like you every day. They know how to handle your situation," says Mike. "People tend to become very fearful during their cancer treatment; it's a natural reaction. Spirituality can help quell that fear. We can trust our doctors, but if you're a spiritual person, you also need to trust in God or the higher power that you believe in. Helping patients keep a focus on spirituality during their treatment is highly important if they're a spiritual person already."

While the spiritual care volunteers are there to help patients, for Mike and Mary and the rest of the volunteer team, they claim they receive far more than they give.

Spiritual Care at Roswell Park

Spiritual Care is an interfaith department supporting the concept of holistic medicine. We recognize the integration of spiritual, emotional, social, psychological and physical care as important for the health of the whole being.

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"Each day, I thank God for the many graces and blessings bestowed upon me and ask for strength and courage for what lies ahead that day,” says Mary. “Visiting and praying with patients is not just a privilege but a blessing. When the Spiritual Care visitors or Minister of Holy Communion enters the room, I often see a change come over the patient. My observation is that we represent a healing person — in a different way from the medical staff — one sent from a higher power to bring hope, comfort, trust and belief that life can change."