Chaplains don’t diagnose, prescribe, perform medical procedures, or suggest treatment options. Mostly what they do is “listen actively,” as they put it.

“We hear people into talking, we are so focused on what they are going to say,” explains Schafer, who holds a master’s degree in divinity from Harvard. “If I listen long and deeply enough, my hearing will evoke your words that will say what you were thinking. Every person is my teacher and will tell me by their wholeness what they need. I am not coming in to offer; they already have what they need.”

Schafer, 63, was born in Kentucky and worked as a textile artist for 25 years, enjoying success in galleries in the 1980s and early 1990s, before turning to the ministry. “What formed my spirituality was weaving,” she says. “Through the textile arts, I learned about the interconnection and interrelatedness of all things. What seemed to be a form of death to the raw material—wool becomes yarn becomes fabric—often transformed into new life. In the practicing of those arts I became aware of the potential spiritual transformation that lies latent at the core of everything in the universe.”

In the early 1990s, Shafer moved to New Mexico, where her growing interest in spiritual matters ultimately led to a new life path.

“I felt like I was being called to be an Episcopalian priest,” she says. “I didn’t know how I was going to do it”—at the time, she was a single parent with only a high-school diploma—“but I knew it involved me going back to school and finishing my college education.”

Schafer relocated to Albany, New York, earned a degree in religion from Skidmore College in 1996, and then enrolled at Harvard Divinity School. “It was a whirlwind of education,” she says with a laugh. (In 2005, she added another master’s degree, in holistic spirituality, from Chestnut Hill College.)

While at Harvard, Schafer decided to focus on the chaplaincy, which led her to Philadelphia, where she enrolled in the CPE program at Penn in 2000. She did her residency as a hospice chaplain at Wissahickon Hospice in Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania, part of Penn Medicine, and was hired as oncology chaplain at HUP in 2002.

“Most of what I know about strength, courage, and spiritual resilience emerges from my relationships with patients living with cancer,” Schafer wrote in a 2005 newsletter for a support group for people with oral and head cancer. “Not that anyone would ever choose to grow under the harsh discipline of illness, but the realities of sickness, dependency, and limitation may yield spiritual riches while providing the strength to live moment by moment.”

Because Schafer’s patients are often hospitalized for long periods during their treatments, she has the opportunity to form lasting bonds. “I listen deeply and build on their resiliency,” she says. “We all have more spiritual assets than we know.”

“Kava emits a sense of calm and peace when she enters my room,” one patient says of Schafer’s effect. “It surrounds her, and it is very calming.”

For those receiving palliative care, Schafer’s presence can be especially reassuring. “I become their safe person. They are grieving and need to be comfortable with their strong emotions, which can be transformative—they can tell me anything.

“I do what I can, as much as I can,” she adds. “Each person teaches me about courage and the strength of the human spirit.”

Henfield echoes this sentiment. “I am helping my fellow man,” he says, explaining the appeal of this intense, intimate, and profound work. “Their religion or ethnicity does not matter. While they are here, they are all children of God.” Still, he admits the work can be physically and emotionally demanding. “When I leave here, I do not talk about work,” he says. “I block it out, and at a meeting we have here about once a month I talk these matters out.”

Henfield, now 66, worked in construction when he was younger, but he had been studying scriptures from an early age and was always active in the ministry of his local church, the Church of God of Prophecy. When his pastor was called to a branch in North Carolina, he recommended that Henfield be elevated to the level of pastor. He laughs: “It was no bolt of lightning.”

He enrolled in the pastoral classes then offered at Presbyterian Hospital to help him understand people better, especially the cultural dynamics of the many nationalities in his church and community. He went on to serve as a community liaison chaplain at Presbyterian for seven years before moving to HUP to become trauma chaplain in 1999. It was a dramatic change to find himself dealing with what he calls the many levels of trauma.

“There is the personal trauma to the patient, the staff trauma of those who attend the patient, and the trauma to the family,” he explains. “In the beginning I was overwhelmed by the gunshot wounds and young people in the hospital. I learned to talk with the nurses and physicians about what I had seen and they helped me with my self-care. I also learned to seek help and to ask people if they could listen to me for a few minutes. There don’t have to be any answers, just having someone listen can help a lot.

 “If you walk into the intensive care unit at 6 a.m., there is hardly any patient breathing on their own. When you witness the vulnerability of man, you realize that we all must depend on each other to survive,” he says. “I recognize that we truly are nothing without each other.”

Every chaplain has a different method of “recharging,” says Ciampa, an ordained United Methodist minister who has directed pastoral care and education at HUP since 1989. When he is feeling particularly stressed, he says, he gets off the train a few stops early and runs the rest of the way home. To help both the pastoral and medical staff, the department conducts grieving rounds once a month with the pulmonary department that are well attended and “very profound,” he adds. “We believe that loss is inevitable and an important part of the human experience. It is the combination of loss and isolation that overwhelms people, and we try not to let that happen.”

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FEATURE: The Spirit of Caring by Kathryn Levy Feldman
Photography by Chris Crisman C'03
©2011 The Pennsylvania Gazette

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Staff Oncology Chaplain Kava Schafer: “I listen deeply and build on their resiliency. We all have more spiritual assets than we know.”



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  ©2011 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 8/26/11