Other than my first name, “Chaplain” is the one word I get called most often. Come to think of it, I may even answer to “Chaplain” more often than to “Stacy.” I began as a chaplain intern in 2006, and since then it has become not only my career and calling, but a huge part of my identity. Being a chaplain has definitely changed me and what I believe in lots of ways. I would even go so far as to say that becoming a chaplain has changed the God I believe in, but I’m okay with that. I was believing in the wrong one before, a god too small, too easy. And even now, I know my best guess at Who/What I’m worshiping can’t possibly be right. But since I’m going to err anyway, I’d rather err on the side of grace and love. That’s what I try to do in the hospital, where God somehow trusts me to walk alongside those who are suffering, bringing their awareness not only to my presence but to the presence of God who is Love, and hopefully showing them in some real way that they are not alone.
It isn’t easy telling people about my job. My title often brings confusion. For some, their idea of chaplains comes from the military. A few have even told me that it was a chaplain who came to their home and informed them of the death of a soldier in their family. That is not what I do, although my job does often involve caring for the loved ones of a patient who is dying or has just died. Some people have absolutely no idea of what a chaplain is or does, and so I usually start with, “I’m a minister, but instead of a church, I serve in a hospital.” That explanation gets me a slightly-less-confused nod from the listener. The best way to tell you what I do is through story. But I have to be careful how I do that. My patients’ privacy is sacred to me (not to mention protected by law under HIPAA), and anytime I share stories from my ministry, I will do so in pretty vague terms. Like any good storyteller, I create characters, and when I mention people I have worked with as a chaplain, rest assured that these “characters” result from combining many different experiences over my years in ministry and changing any identifying details. Not everything I post to this blog will be about my experiences in the hospital, but my identity as a chaplain informs what I think about many other things.
So, what exactly does a chaplain do? I haven’t really answered that, have I? Every night is different (and I say night because that is my normal shift, either 5pm-1am or 7pm-7am), but most of my work revolves around crisis. The hospital where I work is a certified Level 1 trauma center, which means the most serious injuries come to us. Patients from all over this part of the country are brought in by helicopter or ambulance to our emergency room, our nine specialized intensive care units, our chest pain center, and our children’s hospital. It is a busy place! A chaplain is always in-house, and the staff makes good use of us. I get called for most deaths (or imminent deaths); anytime someone gets unexpectedly bad news from the doctors; lots of times when a patient (or family member) is lonely and/or tearful and the nurse just doesn’t have the time to sit with him or her; occasionally when a staff member is feeling stressed, overwhelmed, or upset by a particular case; and as part of the trauma team, the chaplain is automatically paged every time a new trauma patient is on the way to the ER.
My job responsibilities are different in each of these situations, as you might imagine. If family members come in with a trauma patient, they are usually frightened and upset. I take them to the waiting area (or a private room, if possible), bring them water or coffee or blankets or tissues, try to calm them by modeling calm myself, pray for them if they ask me to do so, periodically go into the trauma bay where they are not allowed and bring them updates on the patient’s condition (though I have to be pretty vague about this, since only doctors can legally give a diagnosis), and generally offer what we call the ministry of presence. One of the best compliments I ever received was a note from a woman whose father died during surgery. She wrote my supervisor to say, “Chaplain Stacy came when things were looking bad for my dad. She stayed with me and when he died, she cried with me. She held my hand and I knew I wasn’t alone.” I spent probably two hours with that woman and barely said a word, but I consider it a job well done.
Some trauma patients arrive before their families know what has happened. In those cases, I will do my best to track down family and let them know they need to come to the hospital. If the patient is awake, I will speak to him or her and offer what comfort I can. Sometimes that means asking his name as he is hyperventilating, then slowly and calmly repeating his name, talking to him calmly and soothingly while the staff puts in IVs and assesses his injuries, until his breathing and heart rate have hopefully normalized enough to stop the monitors from beeping incessantly. Or I may distract a young woman with a gaping head wound, holding her hand and asking about her college classes and her boyfriend while the doctor stitches up her head, letting her squeeze my hand really tightly when it hurts. Sometimes there is no family to be found and the patient is too badly injured to be conscious, and in those cases, I am there for the staff. I’m humbled and sort of mystified by the times that a doctor or nurse will see me come into the trauma bay and say, “Oh God, I’m glad you’re here.” (The smartass in me wants to respond, “I’m not God; I just work for Her.”) Or during a code, or a procedure like the one in which a young gunshot wound victim’s chest had to be cracked open to massage his heart, a doctor might look at me with panic in her eyes, and I look back at her and nod, my silent affirmation of her competence, and she nods back before continuing to work. I can’t fully explain what that’s about, really. For some, I think it’s that I represent God (an intimidating job description if there ever was one), and for others it may just be that they know me and trust me and that I do my best to radiate calm.
In cases where patients or family members are upset, or when they have just received bad news, my job is to empower them to get in touch with their own inner resources, their own sources of hope. The life they dreamed of may suddenly be gone due to illness or injury, and I do my best to help them sort through their dreams, figure out which ones are still possible, grieve for the ones that are not, and begin dreaming new dreams, even the most simple or short-term. We may never talk about God (since it’s against our training as chaplains to broach the topic unless the patient brings it up, and many people I work with do not identify themselves as religious), but these are sacred conversations. I never take for granted that I am on holy ground when people trust me with their honest feelings, whether they are throwing their anger at me with every curse word they know, crying on my shoulder, or laughing in relief and gratitude that things didn’t turn out as badly as they had feared. I have been in the delivery room when babies were born, baptized them as soon as they entered the world at their parents’ insistence, and I have held the hands of many, many people (from infant to elderly) as they breathed their last. It may sound like a hard job, or a sad job, and it is sometimes. But it is the best job I can imagine, and most of the time I love it.
I didn’t plan to be a chaplain, but my divinity school required students to do a semester of CPE, Clinical Pastoral Education, which is the crucible in which good ministers are tested. It was 400 hours of supervised hospital chaplaincy as well as group workshops and one-on-one counseling. I know of no better way to get in touch with one’s most honest theology and one’s truest self. It was terrifying, but about a month into it, I fell in love and knew this was my calling. After that I was hooked. I signed up for a year of CPE residency after I graduated, and then was fortunate enough to get the job I have now. Chaplaincy still brings incredible highs that more than compensate for the sad moments. Not long ago, I saw a young man who was about to be discharged to a rehab hospital. I met him the night a car accident left him paralyzed, and that night he had said, “I can’t live like this. I wish I’d just died.” I visited him several times over the next couple of weeks. I told him he had every right to feel that way, acknowledged that what happened really sucked, and told him, “It’s true, your life will never be the same. And things will be tough, especially at first. Most people never have to go through what you’re going through, and I know it’s not fair. But I also know that your life can still be really, really good, if you want it to be. You get to make that choice. Nothing can take that away from you.” I repeated it again on the last night I saw him, and he smiled and said, “I think I’m gonna be okay.” If there were a drug that could give me the kind of high I got just from this kid’s smile, and the idea that maybe I helped him get there, I’d be an addict. THAT is what I really want to tell people when they ask about my job. I just have to learn to say it a bit more briefly!
All of this is why I chose “Chaplain” as part of my title. The rest of the title, “Jesus Lady,” is a nickname I was given in the hospital. Both of those words make me uncomfortable in their own ways, but I am learning to live in to them. I will unpack that a lot more in my next post. I hope you’ll come back.