VANCOUVER—Sister Cecilia Cham has dedicated the last 27 years to a full-time task few find glamourous.
Every day, the nun visits injured, sick, and dying patients at Vancouver General Hospital.
“I visit them, talk to them as a witness, help them to have some hope,” said Sister Cham. The Canossian sister from Hong Kong has spent more than a quarter of a century shuttling to and from Vancouver hospital beds.
She visits an average of 27 patients a day. Far from being a medical provider, she brings a listening ear and encouraging word to patients and their families. Sometimes, she also brings Communion.
“It’s important to listen to them. We listen with our whole hearts, and of course we cannot solve every problem for them, just console them and give them hope.”
Sister Cham is one of two Catholic spiritual care workers at Vancouver General Hospital; the other is Father Jude Iloghalu, who can also anoint and listen to the confessions of bedridden patients.
“There are plagues that affect the sick and the most vulnerable,” said Father Iloghalu. “They are indifference, a feeling of being abandoned, loneliness, devastation of the disease, boredom, and fear of finitude or vulnerability. There is also sacramental starvation.”
Those plagues aren’t alleviated with drugs and treatment. It’s up to spiritual care workers to relieve the pain that comes with suffering alone or fear of death.
“By visiting and staying with them, we help to relieve their pain and their suffering. They look forward to visits! They say, ‘Please do not forget me.’”
Father Iloghalu, who has been a full-time chaplain for more than two years, said visits can help patients recover physically, too. “In the grand scheme of things, it helps with their healing and recovery, because spiritual crises can also weigh down patients to the point that it affects their reception of treatment and outcomes.”
VGH chaplains see the badly injured, help patients and families cope with poor diagnoses, and struggle when their regulars pass away. Over 27 years, Sister Cham has attended countless funerals for people she only ever met in the four walls of a hospital room.
“For me, I am only an instrument. God does this,” she said.
Recently, Sister Cham was called to the bedside of a mute patient whose sign language interpreter forgot to arrive.
Rather than move on to another patient and miss an opportunity to reach out, Sister Cham entered the room and tried to communicate with hand motions. Using various gestures, she learned the woman had been the victim of a hit and run. When Sister Cham made the sign of the cross, the woman eagerly joined her. Realizing she was a Catholic, the nun voiced a Marian prayer and signaled that she would visit again, with or without an interpreter, the next day.
“She was so happy, smiling, as I tried my best to use sign language.”
Fahter Iloghalu, who might be called to the hospital at any time of the day or night, remembers one of the most difficult visits he made. It was to a patient covered in painful, foul-smelling blisters.
“Even though I wore a mask, it was difficult to be inside the room” because of the odor, said the priest. “What came to my mind, as I was attending to him, was how he was feeling. He must be feeling terrible. So, I didn’t mind staying there for some time, letting him know he’s not abandoned and there are people who want to care for him.”
He is looking forward to the World Day of the Sick, Sunday, Feb. 11, a day he said is important to raise awareness about vulnerable people few think about.
“From my experience, people don’t worry about the sick unless it concerns them directly,” he said. “That’s why you don’t have so many people volunteering to visit hospitals and care homes. They go to soup kitchens and the rest, but rarely do you see people visiting the sick.”
He urged people to pray Feb. 11, offer a Mass for the sick, and find out about someone in their community who is in a hospital or nursing home and visit them. “I see the World Day of the sick as a call to sensitivity to the plight of the sick.”
Sister Cham agrees. “Each one of us have the duty to pray for the sick people and to serve them with our love.”
Archbishop J. Michael Miller, CSB, will celebrate an 11 a.m. Mass of anointing for World Day of the Sick Tuesday, Feb. 13, at Our Lady of Sorrows Church, Vancouver.