Sunday, March 27, 2011
You're one of the oldest patients I've ever visited, but -- alert, friendly and bright-eyed -- you look much younger than your years. When I ask if you'd like prayer, or conversation, or a warm blanket, you opt immediately for the blanket. "I'm so cold!"
The ER's nearly always cold; staff rushing from one spot to another warm up quickly, while patients shiver. The blanket warmer's one of the most valuable pieces of equipment in the department, even in summer. And although it's technically spring now, snow covers the ground outside, with more forecast for this evening.
So I fetch a blanket for you, and you beam when I spread it over you. You ask for a prayer, then, and I hold your hand and offer one. "I know Jesus is with me," you say when I've finished. "A few years ago I was here and I was just freezing, but then I felt someone holding my right hand. I turned to look, and no one was there! But my right hand was so warm, even though the rest of me was cold."
I love stories like this; they're one of the reasons I volunteer at the hospital. For all the pain and tragedy that fill the building, there are also small, improbable miracles (and sometimes larger ones). Hard-headed, empirically-minded ER staff don't bat an eye at these tales. Whether they believe them literally or not, they know their patients do, and anything that helps a patient feel better is welcome medicine.
Later, as I load more blankets into the blanket warmer in a chilly back hallway, a nurse greets me as she hurries by. Then she doubles back. "Hey, can I ask you a question? You're a chaplain, right? Don't you guys do that Blessing-of-the-Hands ceremony? Can anyone do that, or does it have to be a priest?"
"Any of us can do it," I say. Every October, hospital chaplains spend a week blessing the hands of any staff members who ask. In October, we're given holy oil to daub on caregivers' palms, and a printed prayer to recite. "I don't have the formal props we usually use," I tell the nurse now, "but I'd be happy to offer a blessing anyway."
So, standing in the dim hallway, I hold the nurse's hands. I give thanks for their skill, tenderness, and compassion; I pray for them to continue in strength and gentleness. The nurse beams, thanks me, and rushes away again. "I need to remind myself," she calls back to me as she vanishes around a corner.
"We all do," I answer to her disappearing back.
And then I go back to loading blankets, thinking about all the work done by the many hands here, and reminding myself always to be grateful for how we reach out to each other, and how the divine reaches out to us.