I’m three months into it, one third of the way through it, six months from the end. And I’m drained. Frankly, I’m tired of being a hospital chaplain, tired dealing with sick people. My patients are not in the hospital for a runny nose or wicked cough. They’re in the hospital for cancer, amputations, aneurysms – life threatening, life changing, life ending stuff. Today I was at the weekly interdisciplinary rounds on one of my units, and the nurse asked the care team about one patient, "So, is she going to die here or at a hospice facility?" For her and for so many patients, death is a question of when and where, not if. Surely we’ll all die – and these days I am too frequently haunted by the thought of my own death and the horror that would be the deaths of my wife or daughters – but for many of these people death is around the corner, a reality, not an anxious fantasy.
Just the other day I had only two meaningful pastoral encounters with patients – not that the more frequent yet brief, introductory meetings are not meaningful – but two encounters that got beyond hello I’m your chaplain and began to explore pain, grief, suffering, hope and hopelessness. Both of these people will be lucky to be alive in six months, recently diagnosed with minimally-operable cancers. And you know, it’s not the cancers that get at me. It’s the stories.
I hear these people and their stories – of life lived, of love given and received, of dreams fulfilled and not yet achieved, of failures, of plans for the future, of children, of spouses, of parents . . . it goes on. One of the patients served in Vietnam, drafted from the streets of Philadelphia, now likely suffering the aftermath of Agent Orange. Belying the solidarity that soldiers share on the battlefield, this soldier is dying alone. With few family or friends, and none who come to the hospital, I’m the only one who visits him without a stethoscope, needle, or lab jacket. A man deserves more than this, especially one who served our nation with honor.
The other patient is a woman in her 60s, a wife, mother and grandmother, who found out a day before Thanksgiving that she has a tumor on her brain. Happy Thanksgiving. She was extremely nervous before heading into surgery, and her husband was was unable to hide his anxiety, despite his valiant efforts. Hearing her tell her story, describe her family, and her fear that she might never be the same, that the surgery might not be successful, or that it all might go horribly wrong . . .
This is the stuff that just yanks at the heart, rips tears from the ducts, and leaves a hole in my spirit. I’m tired of crying, damn it. I’m weary from caring about these souls. I’m sick of leaving a patient encounter only to slam a stairwell door, scream on a city street whose noise drowns my voice, or cry in the privacy of our department office.
Amazingly, in the midst of such suffering and horrendous situations, many patients and their family members ask me how I’m doing. "How do you do this job, spending time with all these sick and suffering people?" they ask. "It isn’t easy, to be sure," I respond, "but it is nothing like what you deal with. In a few minutes I’ll walk out of this room, but you will remain. You will live with this in a way that I will not. It affects me, and the accumulative effect can be overwhelming at times. But it is nothing like what you face. I see it, but you are living it."
Even as I am tired of the emotional burden of this job, I would not be satisfied if my commitment to this chaplaincy program ended tomorrow. As much as I want to flee from that place, from the stories of sadness and suffering, from the people who look death in the eye, I need to keep going. I’ve gotten to a saturation point, an emotional edge, and now I need to figure out what the hell I’m going to do with myself in this place. I’ve finally gotten somewhere, and I feel that now is the time of real learning and growth for me.
It is akin to my semester abroad while in college. After five months in Chile I had become nearly fluent – thinking and dreaming in Spanish, rarely needing to translate my thoughts during ordinary conversations, and otherwise comfortable with this foreign language. But then I went home, left my place of immersion, and returned to the comfort zone of an English-language home. Today, my Spanish sucks. I am sure that if I had stayed in Chile for another semester I would have cemented my language skills in a way that would have made Spanish-speaking akin to riding a bike – one of those things that might get rusty, but which you never forget.
I hope, pray, and expect that in the coming six months of this chaplaincy I will gain greater comfort, greater fluency, greater facility with myself and the emotions that come to the surface as I engage patients and their pain. I’m at that edge of learning, of significant growth, and as much as the personal stories pull at my heart and my soul, I want and need to keep going.
Three months down. Six to go. Lord in your mercy, hear my prayer.