O is for Operation

Dr. James Patrick Kinney performing early anesthesia procedure at Sisters of Charity Hospital, Buffalo, NY

(This post is part of my ongoing series ABCs of Hospital Chaplaincy.)

Did you ever play that board game as a kid, the one where you had to use the little tweezers to reach into the tiny, metal-lined spaces of the cartoon man’s body to remove the little bucket of “Water on the Knee” or the very literal “Butterflies in the Stomach”? It made me a nervous wreck, and my hands would shake as I anticipated the inevitable Bzzzzz when the tweezers made contact with the metal. I was terrible at the Operation board game, so I suppose it’s a good thing I never wanted to become a surgeon. But I do spend a lot of time near the operating room at our hospital.

One of the boxes to check in our chaplain log for “Type of visit,” one of the standard requests we get, is “Pre-surgery.” It’s that common. Usually we get called for one of two reasons: Either the person getting ready to go into surgery wants to complete an Advance Directive, or they want the chaplain to say a prayer with them before they are prepped for the operation. Often they and their loved ones are nervous, and I can understand that. I know that they have just had to sign some paperwork that is far from reassuring. Whether you’re getting an ingrown toenail removed or receiving a heart transplant, there are always risks to surgery. No matter how minor the operation, you will have to sign forms basically stating that you understand there is a chance, however small, that you might die. Who wouldn’t want a little reassurance after that?

So they call for the chaplain. They hold my hand and ask me to pray that everything will go well, that their family won’t worry too much, that they will recover quickly. Sometimes, when the risks are a little higher, they might tearfully ask for my reassurance that God is with them, that they are forgiven, that they don’t need to be afraid. They know that in just a few minutes, the anesthesiologist will come and they will be prepped for surgery, and then they will be completely out of control. They are trusting that the anesthesiologist will know how much to sedate them so that they will be unconscious and free of pain, and how to bring them back to consciousness after the operation. They are trusting surgeons they have only met briefly, if at all, to cut them open (or go in laproscopically) while they are asleep and try to fix whatever is wrong.

That’s a lot of trust, and a lot of relinquishing of control. You would think that might be easier for those of us who call ourselves people of faith, right? I mean, we have bumper stickers that say “God is in control!” and we sing hymns about trusting and obeying. But we do like our illusions of control. Most of us who are adults can get ourselves out of bed, get ready for the day, drive our cars to work, earn our own money, buy our own stuff, and it’s enough to convince us that we are in control. Until the job is lost, or the car crashes, or we find ourselves on an operating table about to be cut open. Then we realize just how little control we actually have, or ever had, and it’s terrifying.

As chaplain, I can’t promise the pre-surgical patient that everything will be okay. Sometimes things do go wrong, though much more often they go right. I can pray with them for the best, and believe with them that whether the outcome is the best, the worst, or something in-between, that God will be right there. And as always God will be working and loving and weaving meaning out of this particular chapter of their story. We all sometimes wish the pen were in our hands, but the truth is, we probably wouldn’t use it much better than I used those tweezers in the Operation game. Thankfully, God makes a much better author.

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