(This post is part of my ongoing series ABCs of Hospital Chaplaincy.)
There are not many places you’ll still see a pager in 2018, but the hospital where I work is one of them. I have the small black beeper clipped to my lapel or in my pocket (if I’m lucky enough to find an outfit with pockets that day) at all times when on duty. The tones of my hospital pager are as familiar to me as . . . well, as any sound you’ve heard almost daily for over ten years. I always set mine to “Pleasing Alert” and that particular series of beeps is the most pleasing of all the options, it’s true. There are some times, though, when the Pleasing Alert is not what I hear. If the beeps instead are jarring, tapping out the same rhythm that in Morse Code means “S-O-S,” then I know that this is a trauma call.
Trauma is defined in dictionaries as a physical injury, or a deeply distressing or disturbing experience. When I get a trauma call to the emergency department, it always meets the first definition and very often meets both. The trauma bay is where medical staff will assess and immediately treat car crash victims, shooting or stabbing victims, victims of severe domestic violence or (much less often) stranger violence, victims of “hit and run” by a car, and the list goes on. Notice how often the word “victim” is used? That’s how trauma usually leaves people feeling – victimized. Sometimes another person is directly to blame, and sometimes not. But almost always there is the question, whether asked aloud or internally, “Why me?!”
Chaplains are part of the trauma team. We are among the people who will always automatically get the trauma page when it is determined that a patient coming in meets all the criteria for a trauma. My job is mostly to offer calm – to the patient (if they’re conscious), to the staff, and to the family when they arrive. I’ll also do things like grab a blanket from the warmer to cover the patient after their clothes have been cut off, get the patient’s name and other info from the EMTs who brought them in so I can pass it along when the nurse has time to write it down, and ask the patient for the phone numbers of any family member they want me to call and notify. None of that may sound particularly pastoral, but I promise you for the people on the receiving end, it is vital ministry.
And the other, often unspoken, part of my job is to bear witness to the presence of God in the midst of trauma. In my book, I tell a story of being in the ER while the medical staff cracked a patient’s chest and attempted to massage his heart back to life. “There in the bloody mess of that trauma bay,” I wrote, “I sensed God’s nearness more than I had in any majestic cathedral.” Even though I don’t always give voice to that nearness, I bear witness to it.
This last one is without a doubt the most important part of my job in the trauma bay. When the worst happens and we ask, “Why me?!” we are in the company of the biblical character Job. He suffered unbearable loss and grief, and asked God why this had all happened to him when he was a righteous man. By the end of the story, God shows up to answer Job. But the answer isn’t really a response to the “why.” Instead the answer God gives is basically, “I’m here. I have always been here and I will always be here.” In the midst of trauma, what I most want my patients and their families to know is that they are not alone. I can’t promise them that everything will be okay. But I can always believe with them (and sometimes for them) that God is here.