Hospitals adapt to welcome religious patients

Hospitals adapt to welcome religious patients

The hospital perks of yesteryear — designer gowns, valet parking, Internet access — stressed luxury and convenience. Today, hospitals have found God.

Area hospitals are now touting “Shabbat elevators” for observant Jews, “bloodless surgery” for Jehovah’s Witnesses and Muslim prayer rooms.

The new services show that hospitals have begun adapting to the religious mosaic of northern New Jersey — and are increasingly marketing to patients not by disease or age, but by belief.

At Englewood Hospital and Medical Center, the staff is rolling out the Jewish carpet, advertising services that accommodate and comfort the observant Jew, one of the fastest-growing patient groups for the 540-bed hospital.

In a month, Holy Name Hospital in Teaneck will finish installing a Shabbat elevator, and expects to open a Shabbat suite within a year. Hackensack University Medical Center has two kosher kitchens, video links to Jewish schools and a freestanding “Shabbos house” for Jewish visitors. St. Joseph’s Regional Medical Center in Paterson has a Muslim prayer room as well as a Christian chapel, and offers Korans upon request.

Englewood Hospital hopes to duplicate the success of its “bloodless surgery” specialty. That 12-year-old program has a global reputation among Jehovah’s Witnesses, who do not accept blood transfusions.

Observant Jews can’t work on the Sabbath, and that prohibition extends to actions such as pushing an elevator button, using electric lights or triggering an automatic door.

To accommodate Jewish visitors, the hospital provides a manual door and a Shabbat elevator that automatically stops on every floor. There is also an overnight room for visitors who can’t drive home once the sun sets on Friday night. A kosher kitchen is stocked with fresh food and ritual items.

“The last thing you want to worry about while somebody is sick is that they might have to transgress on something they believe in,” said Zahava Cohen, Englewood’s patient care director.

When Cohen’s father was hospitalized years ago in New York, he couldn’t get the required food needed for Passover. For the first time in his life, he broke the dietary rules for the holiday. “It was horrible,” Cohen said.

Other observant Jews have similar stories. They recall standing outside automatic doors, waiting to slip inside behind someone else, or walking for miles to visit a sick parent or child on the Sabbath.

“My daughter was born Friday afternoon,” remembered Teaneck resident Jessica Kohn. “My mother-in-law ran around the entire hospital that afternoon looking for a candelabra for me to light [Shabbat] candles and it was next to impossible.”

Englewood resident Diane Katzenstein had to sleep on the floor of a New York hospital 20 years ago when her mother was ill on a Friday night. Because there was no kosher cafeteria food, she ate candy bars from the vending machines.

“It’s come a long way,” said Katzenstein, a member of Congregation Ahavath Torah in Englewood. Her volunteer group keeps the hospital’s kosher kitchen stocked with frozen meals and challah rolls and grape juice for saying the Sabbath prayers.

“It’s culturally competent care,” said Rick Wade, senior vice president for the American Hospital Association. “There’s a great deal of it going on.”

Hospitals have hired Hmong traditional healers, relaxed visitor limits for large extended families, and moved hospital beds to face Mecca, Wade said.

“What hospitals are doing is observing the content of communities around them,” Wade said. “It’s critical to the long-term success of the hospital.”

Out of necessity, Englewood has educated its staff on how to accommodate the intricacies of Jewish law. About 40 percent of women who give birth at the hospital are observant Jews, Cohen said. Maternity nurses have learned that some women will not use a breast pump on the Sabbath, and others will not use the electric call-button. Some Jewish men will not touch their wives during childbirth, while others will wait outside the delivery room. Staff members have learned to understand and respect these practices.

“I always get uncomfortable as an observant Jew to have to explain everything,” said Kohn, who has had three more children at the hospital since her daughter’s birth in 1998. “The fact that you don’t have to explain everything is one less thing to worry about.”

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