Monday, December 8, 2008

Who Needs a Chaplain?

I was in the hospital last week for the first time in my life. Of course, I mean that it was my first time to be a patient in the hospital; I've visited the hospital on many occasions. In fact, the timing of my medical emergency was a bit odd, because for the past semester I have been serving as a student chaplain at Hillcrest Hospital in Waco. This is one of the requirements of my degree at Truett Seminary. It's not very demanding. I am merely expected to roam the halls of the trauma ward for one hour every Thursday afternoon, walking into various patients rooms and striking up conversations that may or may not become spiritual in nature. As a part of this, I have been required to keep a journal. I turned in the journal via email immediately before I admitted myself to the hospital last week. For this post, I wanted to share one of my hospital journal entries with you. This is from Thursday, October 2:

I had a realization after last week’s visits. I realized that I hate walking into a person’s hospital room with no discernable task to perform. Everyone else around here has a real job to do and a real, tangible service to offer the patients. When a nurse walks into a room, they administer any number of services to the patient. When a doctor enters a room, they come bearing information and a plan of action. When I walk into a room, I offer….
See what I mean?
I’m not saying that I believe the chaplain’s position to be without value. On the contrary, I think that, in certain contexts, that this is perhaps one of the most significant services offered within the walls of the hospital. But when I’m roaming the halls with the list of patients in my hands, I only feel that I am trying to choose my next visit, not based on who is most in need, but who will I bother the least by walking into their room? I keep trying to put myself in the place of the patient, and I think I would have little use for a hospital chaplain. Especially if I were being treated for something that was non-fatal (which almost all of my patients are). If I were being treated for appendicitis, I don’t think I would feel a deep need for a perfect stranger to walk into my room, make small talk, pray, and leave. I could probably do without that.
In spite of these insecurities—yes, that’s what I’m calling them—I tried today to push beyond my own personal hang-ups and truly serve the patients. So, today I decided to begin each visit, not with an unprompted series of questions meant to probe into the spiritual life of an already-vulnerable person, but by simply asking the patient if there was anything that I could do for them. I wanted them to see me as someone who is there for them and not mere as a religious swill merchant roaming the halls looking for my next wounded convert.
And so, I put my plan to action. I knocked on the door of my first patient, a woman in her late fifties, and after introducing myself, I asked, “Is there anything that I can get for you?” She said thanks but no. The nurse had just been in the room. But after this, she seemed more willing to talk than some other patients that I had visited. I realized that this could simply have been a fluke. Perhaps she would have wanted to talk anyway. I decided to try it again on my next visit.
This time I walked into the room of a middle-aged Hispanic man who had been injured at work. He also declined my offer to bring him anything, but almost immediately began to tell me all about his wife and his kids and how lucky he felt to be alive. This was, by far, the most successful day I had experienced so far. I decided that this offer to serve before digging for conversation was the best approach. This would be my signature move.
I had time for one more visit before my debrief session, so, with more confidence than I had experienced yet, I walked into another room, introduced myself, and asked the woman in the bed if I could get her anything.
I was not expecting her answer. Without missing a beat, she raised her head, looked at me and said, “I’ll have a Diet Dr. Pepper and a cup of ice.” She then laid back down and returned her attention to the television as if to say, “Our business is through until you have returned with the items that I have asked for.” I now realized the problem with my method: I had to actually get stuff for people who wanted it.
I left the room aware of my mission. Of course, I realized that she may not be allowed to have a Diet Dr. Pepper, so I had to find a nurse and interrupt her from doing actual work and ask if she could find out if my patient was allowed to have a diet soda. The whole process took about five minutes, but eventually my new friend was cleared for her beverage of choice, and I happily delivered the soda. For the next fifteen minutes, she talked to me about how frustrated she was about having to be in the hospital and how she just wanted to get out of here. After our visit and prayer, as I was leaving the room, she called out, “Thanks again for the Diet Dr. Pepper!” I called back, “Any time!”
So this whole experiment has left me wondering, what exactly do we do here? (I feel like I’m sitting across a table from the Bobs from Office Space trying to explain why the my role at the hospital is important). I don’t have a good answer yet, but I’m getting there. I’m seeing how significant it can be for a person to simply be invited to talk to someone who isn’t wearing scrubs or a white coat. I realize that, while many of the patients that we see have families and friends who visit constantly and send flowers, some of our patients have no one. The woman who wanted the diet soda is unmarried and has no family anywhere near here. She has been in the hospital for over a week and has had no contact with anyone who wasn’t a nurse or a doctor.
Some people just need to talk, you know? I may spend forty-five minutes bothering people who would rather be watching television, but if I can spend the last fifteen with someone who just needs to get some stuff off of her chest, I’d say that it’s been a pretty good day in the chaplain’s office.
(end of entry)

There you go. Pretty strange, huh? Of course, i had no idea that two months after writing this I would indeed be diagnosed with and treated for appendicitis. And I stand by my statement: I had no desire to see a hospital-appointed chaplain. However, I had something that many people do not. Namely, I had people who were there for me. My wife never left my side, my brother drove in from Waco, and many various family members and in-laws stopped by. My uncle Sam prayed for me right before they administered the anesthesia, which was when I was at my most freaked-out.

In short, I didn't feel like I needed a chaplain, because there were already people in my life that were filling that need. What I have learned from my time roaming the halls in Waco, though, is that there are many, many people who have no one. No one to give them comfort. No one to give them hope. No one to be a calming presence in the midst of what may be the greatest of tragedies. What if our role as people who follow Jesus is to be aware of this emptiness around us? I don't mean that we are all meant to start volunteering at the local hospital (not that I would ever discourage such a thing). I mean that there are people that we encounter all the time that may have no one. Our coworkers, acquaintances, and fellow churchgoers may, upon closer examination, be in great need for someone to simply ask how they are doing. I wonder how many people are desperate for a kind encounter. I wonder how many people just need to be asked--in a real and genuine way--if there is anything that we can do for them.


laura said...

i'm glad you made it out alive. and thanks for sharing.
sounds like a good experience, even if being a hospital chaplain isn't your "calling"

mm jw said...

That was a wonderful post.

Thank you so much for sharing it.

caroline said...

you are a wonderful, awesome person and I am ridiculously blessed to be married to you!
(if I ever have appendicitis, you can be my chaplain) ;)