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Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
The Huntsman Cancer Institute honors the special nurses who have dedicated themselves to the care of cancer patients Monday, May 6, 2013, with a sacred ritual called the Blessing of the Hands.
It reminds them how sacred what they do is. It's easy to think they're just taking care of the body (of their patients), but it's the spirit, too. —Rev. Linda Brewer, the Huntsman Cancer Institute's chaplain in residence

SALT LAKE CITY — Nurses and other Huntsman Cancer Institute employees made their way from hospital bedsides to the sunny outdoor patio.

They were greeted by religious leaders, who gently cupped their hands and sprinkled them with water, whispering prayers of gratitude, healing and encouragement.

Huntsman Cancer Institute caregivers dedicate themselves daily to helping their patients, but Monday was a day set aside as a spiritual refuge for their healing hands to be recognized. It also marked the start of National Nurses Week, a celebration of the contributions nurses and nursing make to the community.

Participants humbly, and in some cases tearfully, gathered on the patio at the institute amid religious representatives for a Blessing of the Hands ceremony. The burning smell of cleansing sage and the sounds of an acoustic guitar and flute playing brought the peaceful feeling of a sanctuary to the event.

Members of all faiths were invited to the reverent gathering, which featured representatives from various religions, including a shaman, a Buddhist monk, chaplains of several denominations, a Catholic priest and a New Thought minister.

The Rev. Linda Brewer, the Huntsman Cancer Institute's chaplain in residence, said the event blesses the hands, hearts, minds and souls of those who work at the institute.

"It reminds them how sacred what they do is," she said. "It's easy to think they're just taking care of the body (of their patients), but it's the spirit, too."

Brewer said the event allowed employees to feel appreciated and go back to work refreshed.

"It's better than a good night's sleep," she said.

This is the second year the event has been held at the Huntsman Cancer Institute, and many nurses came to work on their day off to participate in the spiritual rites, Brewer said.

Melissa Wright, a registered nurse who works in the institute's medical oncology division, says the work they do is difficult, and she appreciates the support the ceremony brings.

"It's a nice reminder that it isn't just you (administering help), but there's hopefully a stronger spirit in you as well," she said.

After leaving the ceremony, Wright said she felt "re-centered and more balanced."

Shaman Lacee Harris burned white sage and waved it around the medical workers to cleanse them. Harris said he cleanses not only the hands of those who work in the institute, but also their hearts and minds by having them inhale the smoke.

"It doesn't get any better than that," he said of caregivers who have a clean heart and attitude.

Aryn Nelson, a medical assistant, said Monday's ceremony was the second she's attended.

"It's different every year, depending on your experiences that year and your patients," she said. "It's a very personal experience."

Nelson said she's happy the Huntsman Cancer Institute supports its employees by holding the annual ceremony and recognizing their work.

"You feel really at peace and important," she said.

Jody Davis, a chaplain and member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said the event is an "amazing process."

"People from all different faiths and backgrounds find a sense of peace and hope," he said. "It's a sense of unity that often isn't found anywhere else."

Cheryl Munaz, a Catholic chaplain, and Myrna Hirst, a spiritual care volunteer, stood at a basin and washed the hands of the employees.

Hirst said the washing of the hands is symbolic in many religions, not just Christianity.

"It is symbolic of cleanliness and caring," she said. "(It is a way to) give care to those who give care every day."

Registered nurse Susan Blair described having her hands washed as a spiritual experience.

"Nursing work is very hard," she said. "Sometimes we need a little extra help."