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200 days a patient, now on-call: Lung transplant recipient turns hospital chaplain

After difficult half-year in St. Paul's awaiting two new lungs, Delta man with cystic fibrosis returns — as a staffperson spending his nights listening.

George Keulen stands on the 8th floor of St. Paul’s Hospital, a place he spent a lot of time while he was a patient at St. Paul’s undergoing a double lung transplant. The experience led him to be a spiritual caregiver.

Jennifer Gauthier / Metro Order this photo

George Keulen stands on the 8th floor of St. Paul’s Hospital, a place he spent a lot of time while he was a patient at St. Paul’s undergoing a double lung transplant. The experience led him to be a spiritual caregiver.

When George Keulen stepped through the doors of St. Paul's Hospital for his first day of work last March, the excitement of his new job came wrapped in memories from one of his toughest years.

Seven years earlier, the 35-year-old former Delta dairy farmer was discharged from those very doors after 200 days waiting for a double-lung transplant it seemed might never happen. (Keulen was born with cystic fibrosis, a genetic disease largely affecting the lungs).

"It was incredibly exhilarating my first day in St. Paul's, knowing I was now a part of the staff, not a patient," he told Metro in a phone interview. "It took me a long time — seven years — before I became comfortable moving freely within the hospital.

"There was a lot of emotional turmoil I had to overcome."

What got him through his time in hospital — where he needed to be confined to avoid infection — were daily family visits, he said, an "amazing" hospital staff who kept his spirits up, and his faith.

"It gets depressing at times, very lonely, and you begin to be very isolated," he recalled. "Part was simply knowing that I was dying, and if I wanted a second shot at life I needed to fight to make my way there, until a set of lungs became available."

St. Paul's Hospital spiritual care provider George Keulen, now 35, spent 200 days in the hospital in 2010 awaiting a double lung transplant, when this photograph was taken.

Courtesy George Keulen/St. Paul's Hospital Foundation

St. Paul's Hospital spiritual care provider George Keulen, now 35, spent 200 days in the hospital in 2010 awaiting a double lung transplant, when this photograph was taken.

Unable to return to dairy farming due to bacteria, he looked to the spirituality that helped him through that half-year, and trained for ministry; he's now a member of Providence Health's spiritual care staff, often called chaplains.

"My family has always gone to church, but the care I received at St. Paul's developed in me a deeper sense of compassion for other people," he said. "I'm combining my own experience of being a patient, and facing my own mortality, with … really listening to people's stories, and helping them find meaning, value and hope in what they're going through."

Providence, which manages St. Paul's and 15 other facilities, has Catholic roots, but its spiritual care staff is interfaith and non-denominational — centred on a belief that health isn't just physical, mental or emotional.

"We have this part of us that often remains unexplored," he said. "But when we dig deeper into our spiritual side, we can gain a new sort of strength — whether you believe it's within you or outside, it's part of the health process."

George Keulen, 35, stands in a ward of St. Paul's Hospital where he works as a spiritual care provider — seven years after having been a lung transplant patient there for 200 days.

Jennifer Gauthier/Metro

George Keulen, 35, stands in a ward of St. Paul's Hospital where he works as a spiritual care provider — seven years after having been a lung transplant patient there for 200 days.

Canadian hospitals are incorporating such understandings into health care, with practices like reiki, meditation, and Indigenous traditions gaining acceptance, even official encouragement.

It's not just for patients, either. Keulen noted St. Paul's front-line nurses and doctors confronting the opioid overdose crisis are at risk of emotional burnout. "The toll it's taking — I think we often think nurses and doctors, particularly in the emergency room, are superhuman," he said. "But it's taxing on them … St. Paul's, throughout its history, has always reached out to people who are marginalized."

Keulen, who works overnight shifts on-call, feels he's found his calling listening to staff, as well as patients and their families.

"I still pinch myself every once in a while when I walk in," he admitted. "But I'm here to work, not to be admitted."

St. Paul's Hospital Foundation's 100,000-bulb display shines nightly from dusk to dawn until Jan. 8 (1081 Burrard St.). To donate or for more information, visit the Foundation's website.

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