Thursday, March 15, 2007
A few weeks ago, I prayed with a patient in one of our ED critical-care rooms. It wasn't a particularly sad or high-pressure situation, except to the extent that any ED visit is; the patient was in pretty good spirits, and seemed optimistic about the medical outcome.
What was memorable about that visit was the nurse's reaction.
We'd chatted before; she'd told me how happy she was that our ED has chaplains, and we'd laughingly compared notes on our faith traditions. (She's Baptist. I'm Episcopalian. There are plenty of jokes and stereotypes about both.) She's one of those rare souls who has the ability always to seem cheerful, no matter how crazy things are in the department.
But when I looked up from praying with this patient, I realized that she'd been standing with her head bowed, praying with us. Later, she took me aside and told me again -- even more emphatically than she had the first time -- how much it means to her that our ED has chaplains.
"You have no idea how heartening it is to hear someone praying openly with a patient. I've worked in a lot of places, and in some hospitals, it's almost forbidden to pray."
And then she told me a story about one of her patients in another state:
"He was Roman Catholic, and he was dying. He wanted last rites. I told the unit supervisor that we should call a priest, but the supervisor was an atheist and got mad at me and said there was no place for that in our hospital. Can you imagine? When the patient was dying, and this was his last wish?
"There was a community chaplain visiting another patient; he was a Jehovah's Witness. I guess he hadn't told the supervisor who he was. Anyway, I talked to him, and the two of us snuck past the supervisor, and we prayed with the patient. Neither of us knew anything about Roman Catholic last rites, but we did the best we could, and I think the patient knew that."
I've heard other stories about situations where chaplains weren't available when a patient was dying, when nurses and family members had to give the patient -- and each other and themselves -- pastoral comfort and support. But I'd never heard of a unit supervisor, regardless of his or her religious beliefs (or lack thereof), banning prayer from the floor.
I didn't think to ask the nurse who told me this story if she complained to the supervisor's supervisor. I can imagine that she wouldn't have wanted to do that for fear of reprisal; still, I hope that supervisor has somehow learned that good medicine encompasses more than pure science.