Helping the healers: How a St. Michael’s Chaplain is supporting staff
Toronto, October 8, 2020
By Jennifer Stranges
Jeff Braff has a unique perspective on COVID-19. As a retired epidemiologist, he understands pandemics can be devastating, cyclical events. As an ordained Buddhist monk, his spiritual beliefs are rooted in the idea that death is nothing to fear.
Now, as a spiritual care practitioner at St. Michael’s Hospital, he is using this dual-perspective to help patients and their loved ones – and especially, his peers in health care – cope as they work and live through this moment of extreme stress, fear and anxiety.
“I had always felt the calling to spiritual care and to help folks in the moments they needed it,” says Braff.
Six years ago, Braff retired from epidemiology and research and moved to India to devote his time to studying Buddhism, a practice he had studied as much as he could while he advanced in his almost 40-year public health career.
Buddhism is practiced by over 375 million people and focuses on personal spiritual development. For more than 2,500 years, Buddhists have followed the philosophy that we can all grow in wisdom and compassion, all things are impermanent, and that by releasing attachment and hatred you can be free of suffering. Buddhists believe that sentient beings go through multiple cycles of birth, living, death and rebirth.
“One of the things Buddhism teaches is that the most important moment of life is death,” says Braff. “Anything that can be done to ease the fear, pain and suffering around the moment of death is critically important.”
Braff became an ordained Buddhist monk during his time in India, and after three years there he returned to North America to provide support to people in hospitals. He studied at the University of Toronto to become a Chaplain and is currently pursuing a Doctorate of Ministry there, researching how Chaplains can provide better service to hospital staff.
Working with patients is a large part of Braff’s job as a spiritual care practitioner, but providing support to staff is also a great passion. He recalls working at a children’s hospital oncology unit and realizing most of the staff who worked on the unit had similar-aged kids at home.
“There’s a lot of pain and suffering that happens on the part of staff that needs to be dealt with,” says Braff.
With COVID-19, Braff has felt increasingly concerned for the wellness and emotional health of frontline health care workers. Braff feels a responsibility to be there for those caring for and healing the sick.
“To deal with the constant reality of illness and death… it takes its toll,” he says.
Braff has worked as a spiritual care practitioner at St. Michael’s Hospital for a bit more than a year now, and admires the energy and devotion of the staff. He particularly enjoys overnight shifts, because it gives him the time to meet and connect with staff throughout the hospital.
“I love the commitment of the people who work here. Everybody is committed to providing excellent patient care,” he says. “People are tired, some are frustrated, some are scared – but they do it anyway, because that’s what we are about.”
Recently, Braff has spent a lot of time listening to staff and learning about what they’re coping with. The conversations can become quite existential, and as Ontario enters its second wave of COVID-19, the question of “why” is front and centre for many.
“Sometimes there’s no answer to why things are happening the way they are,” he says. “Why this is happening is an existential question I wish I had the answer to, but all I know is that I’m there for you and we will get through this together.”
About St. Michael's Hospital
St. Michael’s Hospital provides compassionate care to all who enter its doors. The hospital also provides outstanding medical education to future health care professionals in more than 27 academic disciplines. Critical care and trauma, heart disease, neurosurgery, diabetes, cancer care, care of the homeless and global health are among the Hospital’s recognized areas of expertise. Through the Keenan Research Centre and the Li Ka Shing International Healthcare Education Centre, which make up the Li Ka Shing Knowledge Institute, research and education at St. Michael’s Hospital are recognized and make an impact around the world. Founded in 1892, the hospital is fully affiliated with the University of Toronto.
About Unity Health Toronto
Unity Health Toronto, comprised of Providence Healthcare, St. Joseph’s Health Centre and St. Michael’s Hospital, works to advance the health of everyone in our urban communities and beyond. Our health network serves patients, residents and clients across the full spectrum of care, spanning primary care, secondary community care, tertiary and quaternary care services to post-acute through rehabilitation, palliative care and long-term care, while investing in world-class research and education. For more information, visit www.unityhealth.to.