"They Are Waiting for Someone to Visit Them": Sisters of St.Elisabeth Convent Caring for the Patients of the Mental Health Hospital

A Lecture by Sister Irina, who serves as the sister of mercy in the mental Health Hospital in Minsk:

The history of the convent started with the social work in the hospital. One of the current nuns was a nurse there and saw how much people suffered there. Surely, any hospital is a place of sorrow.

Our patients are not necessarily people from socially disadvantaged environment or dysfunctional families. Imagine a person who was successful, but something happened in his life and he got to the hospital and was diagnosed with schizophrenia. People who get there for treatment suffer not only from their disease itself, but also from the understanding of their diagnosis. After you leave the hospital, it is quite difficult to find a job. Perhaps, only the convent can accept these people without any problems. People with such illnesses are often misunderstood in everyday society, and this makes people suffer much more themselves. They begin to ask questions. Why me? Why do other people live a normal life, while I have to spend my life here?

I have visited a woman who used to be a successful and beautiful person once but then she got to the mental health hospital. She was desperate. We have a proverb saying that if you feel bad you should look at someone who feels much worse that you. I tried to use the example of parents whose child died from cancer. I said, “Look at these unhappy people. They have been fighting with the disease for years but still they lost their child. They do not scorn God, they thank Him. You are young and you will get help here. Then you will receive supportive treatment and your life will get better. Of course something will change, but you will leave this place”. She replied, “Of course it is much easier for them to cope with their sorrow. They do not feel shame for their child’s death. This is not disgraceful”.

Our main task as the sisters of mercy is to prepare our patients for confession, Holy Communion, tell them about God, communicate with them and comfort them. We tell them about God as the source of life and joy.

How do our visits look like? We come, greet the personnel and the patients, we anoint all and anyone who wants with the holy oil, pray together and then just talk. It is up to us to decide what to discuss with these people. Usually, I read them the Holy Gospel and then we discuss what I have read.

Many people ask why we are not afraid to go there. When I began to visit the patients, I was told to be careful, to make sure no one stands behind me, to take off my glasses. I had a wonderful experience after which I forget about any fear. Once I came to the department and saw that the woman I had recently visited was lying tied to the bed. She asked me to come to her, but it was forbidden. I talked to all my patients and we read the Gospel together. Suddenly I heard a noise and saw that woman running to me across the hall. I leaned to the wall, but she run right at me. She reached me and throw herself at me and said, “Please, save me”.

Today there are 32 working departments in the hospital. We visit 30 of them, 2-3 sisters for each department. There are 15 mental health departments, 2 departments for people with alcohol addiction, departments for dangerous criminals, for men and women. There are also departments for children, 3 departments for elderly people who lie there helplessly because of their age and and various illnesses. There was a case when Fr. Andrew, our spiritual father, came to that department on Easter to serve a moleben. An elderly woman went towards him. She did not understand at all why and where she was going. Her condition was quite difficult. He asked her, “How do you feel? How are you?” And she answered, “Dear son, everything is great”.

There are departments for people with depression. A person has no desire for anything. He cannot eat or drink, he just does not care for anything. He lies on his bed and looks at the wall. One of our sisters visited a woman who was in similar condition. She always lied on her bed against the wall and never spoke. The sister came, greeted the woman, put a caramel near her bed and left the room. It went like that for some time, and then the woman was checked out of the hospital. Much later the sister told us that she was going on the bus, when a woman came to her and asked, “Don’t you recognize me? Your caramel has saved me”. Such a simple gesture, a simple candy helped a person to cope with depression. Of course, the treatment helped to recover, but the candy matters too.

We persuade our patients to accept their treatment. There are certain diseases, which need special treatment. Such medications can block certain parts of the brain, and this can look quite unpleasant: the eyes roll, some drool… People are afraid that they will remain in such a state forever. This is why we tell the patients they should cooperate with the doctors. We tell them about human dignity and that God loves everyone.

We had the cases when people were baptized right in the department. One of the patients of the narcological department completely changed his life and became a priest. I think that our communication, our sisters and our convent become a great support. While we believe, that people and their prayers support us.

We really needed to build the church in honor of St. John of Shanghai so that the liturgy for the sick can be served there. People will come there to pray and rest. On the ground floor of the church there will be a place where we can organize meetings with people who have been discharged from the mental health hospital. We will teach such people handiwork.

Many people do not understand the reason why we visit the hospital. Are you paid a salary? No. Don’t you have a family? Are you unhappy? No. Don’t you have anything to do at home? We have. Are you jobless? No, we are employed. We come to these people because they are our brothers and sisters. And we need to visit them. 

St. Elisabeth Convent
November 27, 2017