Friday, May 11, 2012

The Last Shift

Today I served my last shift as a volunteer lay ER chaplain.

When I was there Monday, a letter was being written to spiritual-care volunteers explaining that the department was being cut because of the sale.  I never got that letter this week.  When I went in today, the letters were sitting unmailed on my supervisor’s desk, although he told me he’d called everyone to make sure they knew.  “It doesn’t say much,” he said with a sigh as he handed me mine, and indeed it doesn’t: thanks us for our service, explains that the department’s closing, instructs us to hand in our ID badges.

“I need to say that this sucks,” I told him.  “The way this has been handled is terrible.”

He nodded glumly.  “We do many things very well.  This has not been one of them.”

I went next door to sign in, and then popped back into his office to ask him a question, but he was on the phone, so I went downstairs to the ER.  The first thing I usually do down there is to check the blanket warmers: I give out a lot of warm blankets, and I need to make sure I have my supplies, so for years now I’ve restocked the warmers at the beginning of each shift.  There’s one at each end of the rather large ER; usually the one farthest from the linen cart is partially full and I only need to carry a few blankets down there.  But today that warmer was completely empty, so I decided to roll the entire cart down to the warmer rather than trucking back and forth with armloads of blankets.

The cart is huge, taller than I am, and very ungainly.  It was difficult to steer; I couldn’t see over or around it and wanted to make sure that I wasn’t running over staff, patients or equipment, so I finally got in front and walked backwards, pulling and looking over my shoulder to navigate.  And then, all of a sudden, I saw my supervisor’s face, his eyes round with surprise, peering at me over the opposite end of the cart.

I’ve never seen him in the ER.  I thought maybe there was a patient emergency and someone had called him.  But before I could ask, he said, “What are you doing?

“Restocking the blanket warmer.”

He frowned.  “We really aren’t supposed to do that.”

Bite me, I thought (completely unjustly; I’m just a volunteer and he lost a salaried position, so getting cranky at him makes no sense, except that he’s the one who’s there).  I’ve been restocking the warmers for over seven years, and I get grief about it on my last day?  “Look, I give out a lot of blankets, and it’s easier and faster for me to do it myself than to nag an overworked tech about it.”

He nodded.  He got that.  (Later I apologized for being cranky and he said, “It’s okay.  Letting people be cranky at me is about all I can do for anyone right now.”)  It turned out he’d come down to find out what I’d wanted to ask him, which was really very decent of him.

We chatted; he left; I kept rolling the cart.  A registration clerk spotted me and said, laughing, “Okay, you’re hired.”

“Actually, I’m fired,” I told her, and explained the situation.  She hadn’t known.  Nobody knew until I told them.  I didn’t tell many people, since everyone was busy, but I did have a long talk with a nurse sitting in the psych hallway, and I also mentioned the situation to the psychiatric social worker, another nurse, and a security guard, all of whom gave me spontaneous hugs.  “You’ve been here forever,” the social worker said, and the security guard said kindly, “With your gifts, you can go anywhere.”  Nice guy.

From my point of view, it was a somewhat slow shift, but a lot of people thanked me for looking in on them, and one couple recognized me from an ER visit last year.  And we had one extremely obstreberous patient who wound up in restraints and was threatening all kinds of violence to medical staff.  “Don’t go in there,” the nurse said.  “That patient doesn’t like women.”  But when I went in and identified myself as the chaplain, the patient started crying, and asked for prayer, and clung to my hand, and treated me to a long, heartfelt and incoherent life history.  Things went south again with medical staff later, but for a few minutes while I was there, that part of the hallway was a little quieter.  The nurse came in again to get vitals while I was there, and the patient said, “I’m talking to my chaplain now, and she trumps you.”  (I explained that actually, medical staff trump me.)  Somehow I don’t think identifying myself as a patient advocate would have had quite the same effect.  Still, I’ll go back as a patient advocate if they’ll let me, as soon as the new owners start accepting volunteer applications.  My supervisor says it’s possible that the new outfit will bring back some form of spiritual care, but I’m not betting on it.

After my shift, I went back upstairs, and removed my badge from its holder, and gave it to my supervisor.  I was pretty teary-eyed.  “Are other people having a hard time with this?” I asked him.  

“No,” he said gently.  “Not as much.  Or at least, they haven’t talked to me about it.  But it’s an individual journey.”  I find that a little hard to believe, since some of the other volunteer chaplains have been doing this much longer than I have.

I cried the whole way home.  Seven and a half years and 1,132 hours: that’s a chunk of my life that’s over now.  And I know I’ll find things to fill the void, but they haven’t arrived yet.

We’re going to a concert tonight.  Music will help.   On Monday, which would ordinarily be a volunteer day, we’re going to a movie.  I’ll keep myself distracted.  But this is a true loss in ways even I can’t quite put my finger on yet, and I ask my friends’ patience and understanding.


  1. Oh my goodness. Susan, I am so sorry. I'm sorry for your loss (and surely that is what this is -- a loss) and I'm sorry for the patients at your hospital who won't receive the care they need. What a sad and difficult thing. I wish you comfort in the days and weeks ahead.

  2. Thank you so much, Rachel!

  3. Sympathies. (I'm glad to see you posting here again, though; I'm not on FB and I've missed your thoughts.)

    As always with advice, disregard if it doesn't fit, but - last week I was struggling with the decision to give up a volunteer opportunity I love because of some changes in the environment for it. At mass, the priest's homily on the vine and the branches included a story about the first time he, as a young boy, watched his father prune a bush. He thought surely too much had been cut, not just deadwood but healthy living branches. And then the next spring, the bush bloomed in a riot of flowers. It made me feel better about feeling called to give up something that was in many ways a good thing. Maybe you, too, will find something unexpected blooming where the pruning took place.


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