Friday, December 08, 2006
The Magic Shirt
This is the pattern of the scrub top I wear to the hospital. When I started volunteering as a chaplain, I wore street clothes, usually in fairly subdued colors. For a while, my standard outfit was entirely black, although I wore bright jewelry with it. Then, a year ago this past October, I went to get my free-to-volunteers flu shot at the hospital. There was a scrubs sale outisde the auditorium where the flu shots were being given. I saw this top and fell in love with the fabric, and I've worn it to every shift since then.
The first time I wore it, I was heading into the ER when one of the registration clerks started teasing me. "Oh, look at you! You're wearing scrubs now!"
"Yeah," I said, "I've gone native."
The clerk laughed. I think some staff find it annoying that I wear scrubs, as if I'm trying to look like a medical professional when I'm not. And patients do sometimes mistake me for a nurse, although some of them -- usually the ones begging for pain meds -- did that even before I started wearing scrubs. (Drug-seeking patients are an enormously fraught subject for ER staff. I've read agonized blog posts by people who dismissed Patient X as a drug-seeker, only to discover that the person was suffering from some genuine, hideously painful ailment. My own definition is simple: drug-seeking patients are the ones who keep begging me for Demerol even after I've said, "I'm sorry, but I'm the chaplain, so I can't help you with that.")
I don't care if my scrub top annoys other people, though, because I love it so much. The colors are gorgeous, and to me, the hearts and suns and moons and stars are all images of creation, reminders of the glory of God. Lots of patients have complimented me on the shirt. One gentleman, who was very enthusiastic about astrology, wanted it buy it from me so he could hang it on his wall. (I didn't sell it to him, but I gave him the name of the company, Cherokee, so he could buy his own. If I were a better Christian, I suppose I'd simply have given it to him.) And several times now, the shirt has had a very salutory effect on somewhat, ah, colorful patients.
A few weeks ago, I walked into one of our critical-care rooms and asked the nurse if I could visit a particular patient. "You don't want to talk to him," she told me. "He curses every other word."
Actually, cursing bothers me much less than it seems to bother many of the medical staff, or even the patients. Whenever someone at the hospital apologizes for cursing in my hearing, I say, "If God really minded bad words, we'd all be charcoal briquettes by now." But the patient was deep in conversation with someone else, a friend or relative, so I decided to come back later.
Before I could get back to that bedside, though, I saw the patient being wheeled to radiology. When he saw me, his face lit up. "Oh, what a pretty shirt! I love the colors!"
Now, that's not very blasphemous, is it?
A few weeks before that, we had the mother of all screamers in the ER. It was a busy night, and all the rooms were full, so the patient was on a gurney in the hall: struggling against four-point restraints and a chest strap, hurling very high-decibel expletives at everyone in range as a nurse with nerves of steel tried to start an IV, and as a cast of other characters -- me, several security guards, and a few other nurses and techs -- tried to calm her down.
"Ma'am," I said, "can you please be quiet? There are a lot of people here who don't feel well, and they need to rest."
"I DON'T F***ING CARE!"
"Ma'am," said one of the nurses, "there's a sick child trying to sleep in that room right there." (There wasn't, but the nurse told me later that this ploy sometimes works with obstreperous patients.)
"I DON'T F***ING CARE! YOU F***ING PEOPLE CAN'T DO THIS TO ME!"
One of the techs decided to use reverse psychology. "You just don't care about anybody else, do you?"
"I DON'T F***ING HAVE TO LISTEN TO THIS! LET ME OUT OF HERE! I WANT OUT OF THIS F***ING PLACE!"
The husband of another patient came barreling out of a room across the hall. "Lady, my wife has a migraine, and she doesn't need to listen to you! Would you just shut up?"
"I DON'T F***ING CARE! LET ME GO! LET ME UP! HELP! HELP! HELP!"
This went on, and on. And on. We stood around helplessly, racking our brains for other strategies. And then, mid-scream, the patient raised her head (not an easy task, with all those restraints), saw me standing at the foot of her gurney, and said in a perfectly normal, conversational voice, "Oh, and I like your shirt!"
The nurses, techs and security guards all turned and gaped at me. I gaped at the patient. I'm pretty sure we were all thinking the same thing. What in the world? The patient, oblivious, drew in a deep breath and resumed her screaming. "LET ME GO! YOU F***ING MOTHERF***ERS CAN'T DO THIS TO ME! I HATE IT HERE! LET ME F***ING GO!"
Okay, so the magic shirt only worked for a few seconds. (Haldol and Ativan ultimately worked much better.) Still, they were a very welcome few seconds.
During another recent shift, I introduced myself to a patient who cocked her head, squinted at me, and said, "You don't look like a chaplain."
"Really? What do chaplains look like?"
"They don't wear scrubs."
I told her the story of finding my magic shirt, and we talked about why she was in the hospital, and about her job and family. At the end of the conversation, she smiled and said, "It's good that you don't look like a chaplain. It makes you less threatening."
Amen to that!
My magic shirt has faded now, from over a year of washing and ironing. (I never iron anything else, but ironing the magic shirt is a pre-shift ritual.) It's not nearly as pretty as it used to be. But that's okay, because I have it on good authority that Santa's bringing me another for Christmas.