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”

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”

What Can We Do?

It has been a hard year so far, for a lot of us. When I read about what’s happening in the news so close to home, it breaks my heart. And I feel powerless to change anything. I don’t know of anything I can say that hasn’t been said, nothing that I can add to all the noise. I read again last night in Psalm 46 that God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in times of trouble. And I ask myself as one who claims to follow God, as one ordained to Christian ministry, what can I do to help those in trouble, those in need of refuge? I’m not a politician with the power to make policy decisions. I’m not a billionaire with the resources to provide for the physical needs of the multitudes of refugees fleeing danger. I’m not a celebrity with a worldwide platform for spreading the word. And if you’re reading this, I’m guessing you’re not either. Maybe you feel small and insignificant lately, like I do. Continue reading “What Can We Do?”

H is for Hope

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

It is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul, according to Emily Dickinson. Nietzsche said it is the worst of all evils. And on my dark days, I think it’s stupid (though not really). In a hospital, hope can make the difference, if not between life and death, then certainly between life and mere survival. Dum spiro, spero. “While I breathe, I hope.” Even when the people I meet in the hospital are fighting for each breath, or when they are hoping that the next breath will be their last, I watch them wrestle with what it means to hope.  Continue reading “H is for Hope”

E is for Emergency Room

378941_2814166308509_2142920155_n

(This is the fifth in the series ABCs of Hospital Chaplaincy.)

It is the beating heart of the hospital. It’s also the only place I’ve ever seen a human heart beating (or struggling to beat) inside someone’s chest, up close and personal. I never know quite what I’m walking into when I get a call to the ER. Chaplains are part of the trauma team, automatically paged in the event of a trauma call. (More on that when we get to the letter T.) But there are many other reasons we get requests to come to the emergency room. It’s one of the units where I spend the most time. My closest friends on staff at the hospital are those who work the ER. (Incidentally, it is more appropriately called the emergency department, since it comprises many rooms. But thanks to those pharmaceutical commercials, when I hear ED I can only think of erectile dysfunction, so it remains the ER for me.)

Here, it’s all about crisis. Almost nobody wakes up in the morning planning on being in the ER later that day. The things that bring people here are sudden and surprising. Continue reading “E is for Emergency Room”

To My Good Friends, Whom I’ve Never Met

photo

It is rather a strange 21st-century phenomenon. There are people I have never met — and may never meet — in “real life” who know things about me that I haven’t shared even with members of my own family. It all started, for me, with a group on Twitter. I don’t even remember how we all found each other, but somehow a bunch of hospital chaplains from very different religious backgrounds and several different countries started a weekly chat at #SocMedChap, for Social Media Chaplains. We would take turns facilitating the discussion, choosing a topic and throwing out a few different questions for the group to tweet responses. It was eye-opening reading these different perspectives from fellow chaplains, even in 140-character bursts.  Continue reading “To My Good Friends, Whom I’ve Never Met”