Sunday, June 24, 2007

Going the Distance

Last summer, I took a one-week "Art and Spirituality" course in Berkeley. One of my classmates was a professional hospital chaplain. When I told her how much I enjoy my own hospital work, how it's often the highlight of my week, she nodded and said, "Yes, exactly! People who know me can't believe that I like getting phone calls at 3 a.m. when a patient's dying, that I'm happy to drag myself out of bed in the middle of the night to go there. But there's so much love at those bedsides: how could anyone want to miss that?"

I don't think I'd enjoy being woken up at 3 a.m.; one of the advantages of being a volunteer is that I work very limited hours of my own choosing, and that I'm not on call. But I knew what she meant about the love.

I've written here before about how the hospital has increased my faith in an afterworld, or an otherworld: a world, anyway, that we only perceive in brief snatches from our current vantage point. But my interactions with patients and their families have also given me more faith in this world, the one we're living in now. Because amid all the pain and fear and loss at the hospital, the prayers and questions and anger, the screams and the smells, there's also, almost always, amazing love.

Sometimes it's the love family members feel for the patient: the daughter who gently strokes her mother's hair after a heart attack; the husband who tells me how beautiful and vivacious his wife was before Alzheimer's turned her into a terrified stranger; the young parents who hold and soothe their miserable toddler. Sometimes it's the love of friends who've become family: the nursing-home aide who comes to the hospital to reassure a demented elderly patient who believes that she's his sister; the woman who spends three anxious hours in the Family Trauma Consult Room during her next-door neighbor's code; the two men, Buddhist and Muslim, who ask me to pray for their sleeping Mormon friend. Sometimes it's the love the patient expresses for others: relatives, friends, pets, God, the nurses, the doctors -- sometimes even the volunteer chaplain.

Love, I've become convinced, is what keeps people going through their own medical crises. However essential medical science may be, what patients love is finally what heals them, what makes them want to live. Love gives friends and family the strength to spend hours -- or weeks, months, years -- in the chaotic, often unpleasant environs of acute or chronic illness. Love gives us the ability to go the distance.

I knew all this intellectually before I started volunteering at the hospital. Now I know it in my bones.

And I also know that my work calls me to love those who feel unloved: the elderly patient dying alone in the ED, the homeless patient about to be discharged back onto the street, the alcoholic brought to the hospital after a suicide attempt. My job is to make love visible to those who can't see it.

And when I can't do that -- when I fall short because of my own faults, the patient's abrasiveness, or simple lack of access (the patient is asleep, unconscious, or surrounded by too many medical personnel for me to get near the bed) -- my job is to have faith that the love is still there, somewhere, anyway, and to pray that the patient will find it.

If I'm ever alone and unloved in an emergency room, I hope someone will do the same for me.


  1. "My job is to make love visible to those who can't see it." What a wonderful line. YES.

    I've said before and will surely say again -- you make me twitch with eagerness to return to active hospital chaplaincy! I have promised myself that I won't take anything new on until I've made significant headway in my rabbinic school coursework -- but as soon as I can convince myself that I can safely spare the time, I want to be doing this work again. Thank you for keeping that flame alive in me.

  2. yes.

    my dad was in a coma for several weeks in 2000, and he has said that what got him through it was my mom, my sister and i being there with him. at least one of us was there every day, and most days all three of us were there for a bit.

    i'm not saying that people who can't do that sort of thing are responsible for bad things happening. just that we could do it, and we did, because we love him. (i had a job that let me drop to half time for two months, my sister got laid off right then, and my mom is retired.)

    i'm going to send him over here, so if you get any anonymous comments signed LLL, it's him. (and i'm the one who asked you to sign the postcard at wiscon. :)

    love you, daddy.


  3. Mother Teresa said, "We can do no great things, only small things with great love." Love is the only thing we take with us and the only thing we leave behind.

    Nice post. I loved working in the PICU especially because it was the one place where I felt I could channel God's love everyday. Thank You.


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