Monday, August 17, 2015

Six Years Ago: "Angelfire"

Six years ago, almost to the day, I exited out of my Clinical Pastoral Education placement at California Pacific Medical Center in the heart of San Francisco and into my field education placement as a student associate minister at First Christian Church in Concord.  I have happily and joyfully remained in parish ministry ever since, but I continue to believe to this day that my brief time in hospital chaplaincy produced some of my best-ever writing.  I shared one such piece of writing last month, and I would like to share with you another.  As with the previous piece, my writing from six years ago has remained untouched except to correct mechanical issues like punctuation and word choice.  This will also likely be my only post for the week, as I am about to take a few days off so that C and I can go see our godchildren get baptized!  I'll be back next week, though, with new entries for y'all.  ~E.A. 

My feet pound against the hospital floor as I keep pace alongside the medical staff.

I am whispering prayers softly under my breath.

And pounding in my head is a throbbing headache that keeps time with my feet.

One day, one of the patients on my service is rushed down to the emergency room. I had just walked onto the floor to see the medical staff preparing to move the patient to the ER. I ask the patient if they would like for me to accompany them to the ER; they weakly say yes. I am suddenly and starkly aware of the trust that is being invested in me--it is one thing to talk to the chaplain in a laid-back setting of a hospital routine, it is entirely another to have him at your side as you are being brought into the ER.

On television shows, the ER is a place full of drama, attractive doctors and nurses, and of patients who either accomplish incredible come-from-behind recoveries, or die in the most heartbreaking manner.

Television got it right in at least one respect--any death has the agonizing capacity to be heartbreaking. But sometimes, the similarities end there. And especially for family--in this case, the patient's father, who came down to the ER with us--it is a place for long waits, confusion, apprehension, and sometimes, outright fear.

Providing pastoral care, at this point, extends beyond both routine conversation as well as the typical existential or theological questions (ie, "Why me?") that chaplains often answer. We are there to explain what we can and to comfort where we cannot explain. I cannot tell a worried father why exactly his child is being taken in for x-rays, an echocardiogram, an MRI, or any other tests, but I can tell him that the x-ray setup is very close by, that they have not taken his child far at all, and that through it all, God's divine presence remains very much alive in the room. And through it all, I continue to give my own prayers, silently and spoken, as an offering to anyone, anything that was listening.

Days later, in the wake of this crisis, the patient referred to me as their angel. That meant a tremendous amount to me--indeed, I felt like it gave me far more credit than I deserved--and it was and is a powerful reminder of the impact clerics can have in a person's life, for both good and bad. While the word 'angel' often carries connotations of great personal virtue, I think that once you put aside that connotation, there is an interesting connection to be made. Just as angels are the ethereal go-betweens from heaven to earth, so too are chaplains--and, indeed, many of the hospital staff--go-betweens from a patient's fears to their hopes. We are go-betweens from a parent's worry to their child's physical presence. And, I am sometimes seen by patients as a go-between from divine presence to the tangible, physical, fragile creation, even though to me I am, quite simply, human.

But on this day, I don't think about any of that. I walk to and fro, trying to make sure nobody is alone for very long. I try to offer peace where there is dread. I try to bring presence where there is unknowingness. And I pray.

And I pray.

After the doctor arrives once again, the patient gently tells me they are ready for me to go. I say good-bye, depart from the ER, lean my back against a nearby wall, slide down onto the floor, and close my eyes as I allow everything that has just happened to wash over me and be taken in.

When I return home, I immediately take 800 milligrams of ibuprofen and collapse onto my bed, painfully, mercifully, imperfectly, wonderfully human.

After about thirty minutes, the pills begin to take effect. I start drifting off to sleep.

And I pray.

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