One Visit at a Time

How One Rabbi Helps Patients Face Terminal Disease

By Roxy Kirshenbaum

Published May 21, 2013, issue of May 31, 2013.
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The rabbi inched closer and tenderly took hold of Silver’s slightly bruised leg. “Did you listen to the president’s speech last night?” Rudansky asked.

“No. Did he say my name?” Silver responded. Rudansky laughed and said the president should have. He turned to the aide to say how much he admires Silver’s spirit.

Easing the Pain: Sanders Cohen, 83, lies in his bed in a darkened apartment having end-of-life discussions with Rabbi Charles Rudansky. ‘I’ve got pain everywhere; it’s the cancer,’ Cohen said.
Roxy Kirshenbaum
Easing the Pain: Sanders Cohen, 83, lies in his bed in a darkened apartment having end-of-life discussions with Rabbi Charles Rudansky. ‘I’ve got pain everywhere; it’s the cancer,’ Cohen said.

“The vodka doesn’t hurt,” Silver replied.

Particular cases haunt the experienced hospice chaplain. Rudansky remembers a mother of four who died of lung cancer at 51 — despite never having smoked. “It’s hard to wrap your mind around that,” Rudansky said. “Cancer doesn’t discriminate and an untimely death like that gives you real angst and anxiety.”

Sometimes, patients ask if the hereafter exists in Judaism. Rudansky responds by asking what the person’s religious thoughts are, in order to learn which answer might offer comfort. “We need to find out what will bring inner peace,” he said.

Silver pointed to a hardcover book on a nearby table and the rabbi turned its glossy pages. One section described the U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington, D.C., including a section on the library that bears Ron Silver’s name. “My son was appointed by President Clinton to help with peace initiatives in foreign affairs,” Silver said. It’s clear that he misses him, and is proud of everything he accomplished. Silver always tells Rudansky, “I had a great life until I lost my wife and son.”

“It’s Purim soon,” the rabbi said, changing topics.

“Again with the Purim?”

“I’m going to bring you some hamantaschen,” Rudansky replied. He told Silver he’d be back soon, then leaned in for a hug and kissed him gently on the cheek.

“Thanks for coming, rabbi,” Silver said, watching him walk away.

“He’s been sleeping a lot lately,” the aide whispered in the hallway. “Hasn’t wanted to get out of bed much but today, with you, he was more up.”

The rabbi nodded and said it was the medication making Silver drowsy and less lucid, and that if there was a problem, the aide should call. “I’ll be back in a week,” he said. “And I’ll bring those hamantaschen.”

Rudansky has had to figure out ways to cope with the difficult nature of his job, in which every patient eventually dies.

“I have a strong family support system,” he said. “I have also learned to compartmentalize, by having an equilibrium between this death and dying … and my own personal life.”

Rudansky pursues healthy distractions like playing basketball and baseball with his children. It helps that his wife, a psychologist who has worked with dementia patients, can relate to his work.

“Thank God my whole family is still alive,” Rudansky said. “I deal with death every day, but I know nothing about it. I’m always wondering, when I do find myself as a real mourner on the other side, how I will approach this work subsequently? I’m not exactly looking forward to it.”

Roxy Kirshenbaum is a graduate of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. She grew up in Toronto.


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