Big Man of Faith
by Michael Lee
The moment will never be forgotten, because it represented a possible detour — or end — to the life and career of a man who had already overcome such hardscrabble beginnings. But the dates, the feelings, the struggle had mostly been buried into the crevices of Nene’s memory, a chapter in his life that doesn’t require any special celebrations or recognition years later.
, surviving a diagnosis of testicular cancer at age 25 only serves as a reminder of how much the Washington Wizards
forward has been blessed, and how he believes God chose him to handle yet another seemingly insurmountable obstacle to serve as an example for others.
Nene, 30, didn’t even realize that last month he had reached the fifth anniversary of his surgery to remove the tumor because he was more concerned about fighting through a stomach virus to help the Wizards defeat the Orlando Magic
that evening. Still feeling the effects of his stomach ailment a day later, Nene simply reacted with a smile and surprise when told of the milestone as he munched on a grilled cheese sandwich and sipped soup in his hotel room.
“Wow. I don’t keep track,” he said. “I don’t keep track.”
But when the Wizards made a surprise visit to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital
in Memphis a few weeks later, Nene was forced to confront his toughest physical challenge as the players walked through the patient care center and medicine room, where children received cancer treatment. There, Nene was suddenly overwhelmed by the sensations of his own chemotherapy treatments — the burning in his limbs, the goose bumps, the taste on his tongue that he described as “salty and spicy,” and the fear that his organs would eventually shut down.
“It was like, amazing. A long time I don’t feel like that,” Nene said, before reflecting on that difficult period. “For four weeks, I was sick, I was weak. I could feel the liquid moving in the veins. I feel like a science fiction movie, where the liquid comes all over your body. It was like that.”‘God is going to provide’
Nene credits his deep faith for helping him become the first player from Brazil to be drafted into the NBA and for giving him the strength to get through the many physical and emotional hurdles that have followed.
Before cancer, there was the torn anterior cruciate ligament, sprained medial collateral ligament and torn meniscus in his right knee suffered two minutes into the 2005-06 season. Before the knee injury, there was leaving tiny Sao Carlos as a teenager and adjusting to a different culture while speaking little English. And before moving away from all he knew and loved, Nene had to prove himself as a worthy basketball talent, playing in cheap shoes covered in duct tape after they had completely splintered and surviving on what little scraps his poor family could provide.
“I always remember what I’ve been through to be here,” said Nene, who was born Maybyner Rodney Hilario before having his name legally changed to the Portuguese word for “baby” in 2003. “I have no shoes, I have no clothes, but I was blessed. I remember my mom. She have money to buy the food or give to God like you’re supposed to, because we’re Christian. She give to God and say, ‘You know, we don’t have food today, but God is going to provide our future.’ ”
Nene’s future is set financially: He has earned more than $70 million in his first 10 seasons in the NBA and is in the second year of a five-year, $65 million contract. Those riches were a fantasy for Nene when he first began playing professional basketball at age 15. He was motivated by a trading card of former NBA great Shawn Kemp that was given to him by a friend, and by a former coach who told him that a man of his size would have a career as a nightclub bouncer or grocery store bagger if he didn’t stay committed to the game.
Doctors and nurses were preparing Kathleen Hynes for a stem-cell transplant at Long Island's North Shore University Hospital last June when she asked them to page another member of the medical team—hospital chaplain Kimberli Lile.
There is growing evidence that many patients with major illness have better outcomes when hospital care is combined with spiritual care. Laura Landro has details on Lunch Break.
Ms. Hynes, a 53-year old cancer patient, wanted the chaplain to bless the cells before they were administered intravenously.
Hospital chaplains have long been a source of comfort and succor for patients facing daunting illness.
Chaplains are seeking bigger roles in hospitals and in some cases joining the medical-care team, as new research shows positive spiritual guidance and discussion can help improve a patient's medical outcome.
Some hospitals are giving patients questionnaires upon admittance to identify who may benefit most from chaplain referrals.
Chaplains, of course, may still pray with patients regardless of denomination, help families make difficult end-of-life decisions or simply offer a sympathetic ear.
As interest rises in the links between religion, spirituality and health, there is a new push to establish chaplaincy in the medical mainstream and apply more rigorous scientific research. The Association of Professional Chaplains, which certifies health-care chaplains, issued its first standards for practice in 2009, including the requirement that chaplains document their work in patient medical records and stay abreast of new research.
Medical schools are adding courses on spirituality and health, and training residents to consider patients' spiritual needs. Some two-thirds of U.S. hospitals provide chaplaincy services; others rely on local clergy and lay volunteers.
Studies indicate as many as 40% of patients with serious illnesses like cancer struggle with spiritual concerns, which can harm emotional and physical well-being, says George Fitchett, research director in the Department of Religion, Health and Human Values at Rush University Medical Center Chicago.
Patients who have negative thoughts—say, questioning God's care for them—are more likely to develop worse health outcomes than patients who show positive spiritual coping, such as turning to religion for solace.
Chaplains "are patients' greatest advocates," says Harold Koenig, director of Duke University's Center for Spirituality, Theology and Health. They should work closely with other medical professionals, he says, and help them understand how spiritual beliefs influence patients' treatment decisions and response.
Studies indicate that chaplain visits can result in less patient anxiety, shorter hospital stays and higher satisfaction. Still, a review in the Journal of Health Care Chaplaincy concludes that many studies haven't been rigorous enough to test effectiveness and define the best practices of chaplains' care.
"Every dimension of health care has to be accountable," says Walter Smith, a Jesuit priest and president of the nonprofit Health Care Chaplaincy in New York, which conducted the review and provides chaplains to area hospitals.
"Creating a strong research foundation of what chaplains do in the clinical setting will mark the coming of age of health-care chaplaincy as a profession," he says.
With a $3 million grant from the John Templeton Foundation—whose late founder was an investor interested in the intersection of scientific research and spirituality—the Health Care Chaplaincy will oversee six national research projects on professional chaplains' role in health and palliative care, Dr. Smith says.
A study published online in July in the Journal of General Internal Medicine found that among 3,000 patients hospitalized over a three-year period at the University of Chicago Medical Center, 41% wanted a discussion of religious and spiritual concerns, yet only half of that group reported having one.
Patients who had a spiritual discussion reported being more satisfied with their overall care, whether or not they said they had desired it.
Patients may hesitate to ask for a chaplain's services out of concern that chaplains will proselytize—even though in many cases they don't use explicit theological language and "are there to be companionable and offer support," says Wendy Cadge, associate professor at Brandeis University.
Doctors, she adds, may feel uncomfortable asking patients about spiritual needs, or that it is inappropriate to do so.
That's where tools such as spiritual history-taking can help, says Christina Puchalski, director of the George Washington Institute for Spirituality and Health, in Washington D.C., who developed a screening questionnaire.
Ann Berger, chief of pain and palliative care at the National Institutes of Health's Clinical Center in Bethesda, Md., says it is "an easy way to ask these questions of patients and teach spiritual assessment to health-care providers." Chaplains visit referrals from such questionnaires and often make rounds to chat informally with patients.
At North Shore University Hospital, Ms. Hynes met Rev. Lile, a Health Care Chaplaincy employee, when the chaplain stopped by her room.
Ms. Hynes, a Catholic, had turned to her faith to help her cope with the 2008 death of her husband and the loss of her teaching job. After she was diagnosed with mantle cell lymphoma, a rare and often aggressive cancer, Rev. Lile helped Ms. Hynes face some of her fears, she recalls. "She gave me a beautiful prayer, and we sat and talked for an hour. She was so receptive and interested in what I was going through."
The two spoke often during Ms. Hynes's hospital stay, laughing over the notion that Rev. Lile, trained as a Lutheran minister, would be blessing Catholic holy water that Ms. Hynes's son brought to the hospital for the stem-cell transplant.
After the transplant, Ms. Hynes wrote to Rev. Lile to express her thanks: "I feel so blessed to have your encouraging influence during this turning point in my life. . . . The beautiful prayer and blessing is a memory I will always carry with me."
Checking on Spirit After a Transplant
As a nearly 20-year survivor of a bone-marrow transplant at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, in Seattle, I get an annual questionnaire in the mail about my physical and psychological well-being. This year, it asked about my experience of "Spiritual/Religious/Existential Struggle."
Stephen King, manager of chaplaincy at the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, which includes Fred Hutchinson, says the aim is to learn more about how the aftermath of a transplant affects not just the body but the soul. It is part of a medical effort to understand the links between health and spirituality.
Of all the medical treatments that cause extreme pain and deadly risk in pursuit of a cure, few are more daunting than a bone-marrow or stem-cell transplant to treat leukemia, lymphoma and other diseases. Patients get high doses of chemotherapy and radiation to kill cancer cells; then healthy cells are administered intravenously in hopes of building a strong new immune system. Even when it works, patients can suffer terrible side effects, dangerous infections and long-term physical limitations.
On the encouraging side, studies have shown that many transplant patients experience enhanced appreciation for life, re-ordered priorities, increased empathy and higher self-esteem. Yet they also often report lower spiritual well-being. "Negative religious coping"—feeling angry, unloved or abandoned by God, or doubting one's beliefs—has been associated with anxiety, depression and poorer social and emotional well-being.
Experts say attending to one's spirituality—be it with yoga, prayer, meditation, music or putting others first—may help turn spiritual struggle into an opportunity for growth.