Rev Michael Hertz came to Australia almost two years ago from the USA to a Uniting Church WA placement at Royal Perth Hospital (RPH). He co-ordinates the Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) Program there, and claims he has the best job in the world.
Michael describes clinical pastoral care as learning how to be present with someone in their spiritual distress. At Royal Perth Hospital, that can be during some of the most challenging experiences people will face.
“We don’t do surgery. We don’t do helping people have an appropriate hospital bed in their home. We don’t administer medications, but we’re part of all that activity and we’re right there providing emotional, spiritual, relationship and care,” he said.
As a young adult, Michael was working towards a career in medicine. But a moment of clarity about where his life was heading careened him in a different direction.
“I became the person I did not want to be in my attempts to get the top grades. I was taking the medical college admission test and I looked around the lecture hall and I realised I would not want to be cared for by any of the people I had been studying with and, worse than that, I would not want to have been cared for by myself.”
After a suggestion he take some time out in a seminary degree, he moved from Wisconsin to San Francisco and took part in a clinical pastoral education program and found his home.
From the late 80s and into the 90s, Michael spent six years at California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco, during the early years of an HIV AIDS epidemic among gay men and intravenous drug users. During this time he worked with patients and their families providing spiritual and pastoral care, sometimes to family members who weren’t previously aware of the patient’s sexuality.
Having come out as gay himself during this time, Michael still considers himself one of the lucky ones.
“We were transporting ten to twelve bodies down to the morgue from our little unit every single day,” he said. “I don’t know how we did that.
“I think I was just young enough that I didn’t know what I was doing. It was devastating. An entire community was being wiped out.
“A lot of these guys had lost 30 or 40 friends to the epidemic; they knew they were going to die. Families were coming in from all over the country to be with, generally their sons, to learn that they were dying, that they were gay, that they had this entire life.
“Guys from the middle part of the country, I was one of those, gravitated to San Francisco to figure out why we felt so different and why we felt so unaccepted in our rural, small towns. When I got to San Francisco there was a whole community of people having that same exploration. Unfortunately, a lot of that exploration involves sex and that’s, I think, why the epidemic took off as fast as it did.
“I consider myself very lucky that I’m still here.”
Fast forward 20 years or so, and Michael is a leader in the field of CPE.
At RPH, the Clinical Pastoral Education program is open to anyone, of any faith or none, who is willing to learn how to be present for people in their time of need.
“Basically, the program is open to anybody who’s open to a deep self-exploration for the purpose of improving the care they’re able to offer to others. ‘Spiritual, but not religious’ is the biggest demographic right now.”
Being there for students as they grow in their ability to care for others is one of the highlights of Michael’s role.
“It is terrifying to enter a situation where someone is dying, where there’s been a major crisis, where someone’s screaming at God. And when [students] confront that initial fear and have that first experience, they come back and have the support of a supervisor and a peer group,” he said.
“Within a matter of weeks, I watch the transformation from that fear to excitement, and sense of honour and privilege of walking into people’s worst day of their lives.
“CPE, at its heart, is teaching the art and science of responding to spiritual crisis through a variety of skills, theory and, what makes CPE particularly unique is self-awareness. You can’t join another person in their spiritual crisis, suffering, grief or celebration until you know yourself well enough that you don’t get in the way of the care you offer to them.
“There’s no hiding in the hospital and there’s no hiding when you’re in CPE.”
Royal Perth Hospital’s CPE program consists of 400 hours of study time, 100 of which is in a classroom, and 300 providing supervised pastoral care. Courses are offered full-time and part-time.
For more info, contact Rev Michael Hertz on 9224 2482 or visit the new Association for Clinical Pastoral Education WA website at http://www.acpewa.org.
Top image: Rev Michael Hertz (left) pictured with current students of the Clinical Pastoral Education Program outside Colonial House, Royal Perth Hospital. L-r: Kay Wee Sim, Mary McLean, Konrad Gagatek, Tee Truman and Oliver Yengi.