Wednesday, August 23, 2006

PITA for Christ

If "pain in the ass" were a Myer-Briggs Personality Type, it would be mine. (My actual Myer-Briggs type, for those of you who care about this kind of thing, is INFJ.)

One of the things I love about my volunteer-chaplain gig is that the ER transforms some of my more, ah, colorful personality traits -- the ones that often seem to be shortcomings or handicaps in other areas of my life, like cocktail parties or university committee meetings -- into valuable assets.

For instance:

1. I'm really stubborn and maddeningly persistent. My parents love to tell the story of the toy baby carriage I had when I was a toddler. I quickly learned how to push it in a straight line, but it took a while for me to master turning. Until I did, I'd push the carriage until I encountered a piece of furniture. Then I'd try to push the carriage through the piece of furniture. Then I'd back up, let out an ear-splitting howl, and charge full force into the piece of furniture. (My parents have never, fortunately, collected fragile antiques.)

In the rest of my life, this kind of doggedness often annoys people who want me to let go of some issue. In the ER, it helps me help patients in a hectic environment. If I need to find out if Patient X is allowed to have ice chips, I will by God get the information. If I can't find Patient X's nurse, I'll ask the charge nurse, the doctor, or anyone I see at the nursing station who might have access to the chart.

2. Even people who love me dearly have been known to describe me as "abrasive." This is a decided advantage in the ER, where pressure-cooker conditions often render staff a little abrasive, too. When I took my ER-for-volunteers tour, our guide warned us never to take anything personally. I've been snapped at, growled at, and on occasion outright yelled at for asking stupid questions, but if I'm on a Mission from God to find out if Patient X can have ice chips, it won't faze me much. (The people doing the snapping, growling and yelling are of course on their own Missions from God. We're all there to help the patients, which makes temper flare-ups much easier to accept.)

I'm told that many ER volunteers quit because they get intimidated. Not me. On more than a few occasions, I've been the recipient of what I call the Go-Away Glare. A nurse will spot me coming from fifty paces, scowl at me, and cross his or her arms. No words accompany this; none are needed. You can practically see the thought balloon forming above the nurse's head. "You are a clueless volunteer who keeps getting underfoot, and I am a highly skilled, overworked and underpaid professional who's been on my feet for the last eleven-and-a-half-hours and has helped save the lives of three coding patients and can't even remember the last time I could squeeze in a bathroom break, and I am so exhausted that I can barely see straight, and if you ask me an annoying question about ice chips, I will hurt you."

Sorry, friend. See this baby carriage? Patient X wants ice chips. I'm on a Mission from God, and you're not going to stop me by making faces. Don't take it personally.

3. I really, really suck at small talk. I cannot for the life of me make polite social chit-chat about the weather or sports scores or Top 40 radio hits. I'm much better at talking about pain, suffering, poverty, and world hunger.

This doesn't go over well at parties. (Most of my life, people have told me that I'm "too serious," "not fun," and "don't have a sense of humor.") In the ER, it's a huge blessing. The patients don't need someone who can make small talk. They need someone who'll cut through the small talk. It's amazing how often, when I introduce myself, patients will say, "Oh, I'm fine, thanks!" They'll say this if they have broken bones, if they're on oxygen and a heart monitor, if an NG tube is pulling blood from their stomach or if a Foley catheter is draining blood from their bladder. (By the way, not being squeamish is another very helpful personality trait for ER volunteers.) "It's nice of you to come by, but I'm fine, thanks!"

"Really?" I ask them. "You're fine even though you're in the ER, hooked up to all these interesting contraptions?"

That almost always makes patients laugh, and very often they'll then give me a less socially acceptable -- but more honest -- answer. Some patients stick with "fine, fine," because they're feeling so much better than they were when they got to the ER, but I've also had patients and their relatives go from "fine, fine" to sobbing in my arms in less than five minutes.

ER patients need people who are willing and able to listen to them talk about their pain, suffering, dread, and desperate oh-my-God-I-asked-an-hour-ago craving for ice chips. ER patients like the fact that I'm serious, not to mention stubborn and persistent.

And oddly enough, many of them seem to think I have a good sense of humor. Who knew?


  1. This may seem strange, but I am seriously baffled at the idea of you being abrasive or humorless. Neither of those jibe with my experience of you in the least. Stubborn I can believe.

  2. Thanks, Scraps! All minority viewpoints are most welcome!

    Do you know Peter Watts' novel Starfish? It's about people working in a deep-sea facility; because the environment's so harsh, only folks with very specific personality traits (usually ones unwelcome on land) can function well there.

    The hospital's just the tiniest bit like that, although the personal krenks required are much less scary than the ones in Watts' novel.

  3. I have all three of the characteristics you claim as being unwelcome in most polite society.

    They also make me good at my job.

    I tell my son that the trick to life is figuring out your bad points and then using them to your advantage. Im pretty sure Im right.

  4. Hi, That Girl! I'm pretty sure you're right, too.

    And I don't know if these traits are unwelcome in most polite society, or only the polite societies where I tend to find myself -- although I suppose it doesn't make much difference.

  5. You hit the nail on the head. When I worked in the ER I felt like I was in the most dysfunctional family ever. People who worked in other units were always like, "Oh, the ER. Groan." It definitely takes a special person. And by special I mean, of course, serious and abrasive! No, seriously, you fit right in, and that's a compliment. And I love the blog-I'll be back.

  6. Hey, TC! Thanks; I like your blog, too! (Not to mention admiring your job!)

    And yes, I fit right into dysfunctional families! LOL!


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