Into the Unknown

Each day as I made my way into the hospital, I had to pass through the tent at the one entrance that was not blocked, along with everyone else who came into the building. It was like something out of a disaster movie. Every time, the chorus of a song from Frozen 2 came to mind, and I could hear Elsa belting out, “Into the unknoooown …” The campus felt like a completely different place from just a couple of weeks prior. This was the tent where hospital concierges, who used to assist visitors in the now-deserted waiting areas, had to screen everyone coming in for symptoms of COVID-19. They were exposed to more people each day than pretty much anyone working there. The same changes that put them on the front lines left me feeling sidelined. Chaplains were being asked by medical staff to limit our visits only to those most urgent, so we wouldn’t be more potential carriers of the virus from one unit to another. With testing so limited and results so slow, we just couldn’t know for sure how many of our patients were contagious, and Personal Protective Equipment was being closely guarded, anticipating growing numbers of confirmed COVID-19 patients at some future time.

A large white tent with lights inside is shown outside a brick hospital building. A sandwich board sign advises that there is no visitation allowed due to COVID-19.

In late March and early April, more and more often I was told by nurses or doctors that I couldn’t go in to patient rooms where I was called, because the person was a PUI, Patient Under Investigation, meaning they met some criteria for virus exposure, even if we didn’t have test results for them. Sometimes that meant standing helplessly outside the door while I could hear a mother wailing for her dying child inside the room. Other times it meant having to tell the family waiting outside the hospital that I could pray for their loved one from outside the negative pressure door, but like them, I would not be allowed to hold his hand as he died. This was not the case for chaplains everywhere. My seminary classmate and friend Will Runyon is a hospital chaplain in Albany, Georgia, site of one of the worst COVID-19 death rates in the country. I knew that Will had been suiting up in PPE and holding the hands of affected patients, ministering directly to them, being there for them when their families couldn’t be. In the online chaplain groups I was part of, others argued that the only responsible way to do our job right now was tele-chaplaincy from home. I told one of my colleagues, “I don’t know how to be a chaplain during this thing.” And the next day, I was told that I wouldn’t have the choice to be one.  Continue reading “Into the Unknown”

Faith in the Time of COVID-19

“Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me?” Well, where do I begin?! I heard these words from Psalm 42 during our church’s worship service this morning, which I watched via Facebook Live just like the rest of the congregation. Our new pastor, the one we just installed last Sunday, came together with the rest of the church staff and made the difficult decision to cancel any activities at the church until further notice. Anything that brings groups of people physically together right now, especially when a lot of those people are in high risk categories, is anathema. Every day the numbers of those infected by the novel coronavirus and those who have died keep rising. So yes, there are plenty of reasons our souls might be disquieted within us in these strange days. Continue reading “Faith in the Time of COVID-19”

A Prayer for Everyone Eating Christmas Dinner in a Hospital

Dear God,

This is not really where we want to be spending today. There are many reasons we are here with a tray of hospital food, instead of around a beautifully spread table at home with a great big loving family, like all the TV commercials and holiday cards and sappy songs on the radio seem to imply we should be. But here we are. Continue reading “A Prayer for Everyone Eating Christmas Dinner in a Hospital”

T is for Trauma

(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. Continue reading “T is for Trauma”

1. Learn to Use a Gun

(This post is the first in my year-long series 40 New Things at 40.)

I had seen the ad a few times for Ladies’ Night at a local gun shop and range. For one price, a woman can get lessons from female instructors, rental of two different guns, fifty rounds of ammo, private use of the practice range with just the other women in the group, and a t-shirt that reads “I Shot Like a Girl.” Everything is pink for Ladies’ Night – the shirt, the protective headphones and eyeglasses, the man-shaped target. I told a friend I was thinking of putting this on my list of forty new things to try this year and she exclaimed, “But you’re anti-gun!” Continue reading “1. Learn to Use a Gun”

Waiting in Advent

A lot of waiting happens in hospitals. I get to be chaplain to people who are waiting for an organ transplant, waiting for a baby to arrive, waiting for their discharge orders to go home, waiting for test results, waiting for the medication to work, waiting for death, their own or a loved one’s. Often they don’t know how long they will have to wait, and that makes the waiting harder. And no matter what they’re waiting for, they know that things will be different when the waiting is over, in ways that they may not even be able to anticipate. 

Continue reading “Waiting in Advent”

Extremis: A Netflix documentary on end of life issues

extremisThis week, a short documentary premiered on Netflix. In less than half an hour, Extremis follows several different patients and their families facing end of life decisions, as well as the doctors caring for them. These people were very brave in allowing the film crew to capture such intimate and heart wrenching moments. Everybody dies. We all know that on an intellectual level, but for most of us it doesn’t become real until we are faced with the undeniable fact that we or someone we love is dying. And with the medical technology available in 21st century hospitals, death can often be postponed. The documentary raises many questions, but perhaps the most crucial one is, What counts as life for you? Continue reading “Extremis: A Netflix documentary on end of life issues”

S is for Self-Care

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

You’ve probably heard the saying that doctors make the worst patients. I’m here to testify that in many cases, caregivers are the very worst at taking care of ourselves. It took me years as a chaplain to learn how important it was to care for myself so that I could care for other people. And still sometimes I let it slide. Prioritizing self-care is hard for a lot of us. We live in a society that encourages and praises workaholism, so when we speak up for own need for days off from work, for example, we risk falling behind or being seen as less dedicated than our peers who happily take on extra hours.  Continue reading “S is for Self-Care”

R is for Ready

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

Not long ago, my boyfriend and I took his two sons to a local waterpark, on one of the Saturdays I didn’t have to work. It was a fun day, and I felt quite relaxed as we floated down the Lazy River on inner tubes. But just then, I heard a familiar beeping, and I wasn’t so relaxed anymore. It took me a moment to locate the source of the sound. It was not, as my mind had instantaneously concluded, coming from the pager I carry at work in the hospital. Rather one of the nearby water slides used a very similar tone to let the person working at the top of the slide know that it was safe to send the next rider down. Once I figured that out, I breathed a sigh of relief. Still, after nine years of responding to all kinds of emergency calls that begin with that sound, I had a Pavlovian response to it every single time, a small rush of adrenaline. Some subconscious part of my brain has learned that when I hear that sound, I have to immediately be ready for anything.  Continue reading “R is for Ready”

Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story?

Like millions of other people, I’ve spent the past few months obsessed with the soundtrack to the Broadway musical Hamilton. If you’re not familiar with the play, it dramatizes the life of founding father Alexander Hamilton, telling the story through modern American musical styles. It is brilliant and funny and moving. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve listened to it, and I still cry every time. Before he puts young Hamilton in charge of a battalion of soldiers to fight a crucial Revolutionary War battle, General George Washington sings words of paternal wisdom and caution: Continue reading “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story?”