Saturday, May 12, 2012

Everything's Better with Lambs

My weaving and spinning guild meets once a month, in various locations.  Today we met at a farm north of Reno, just over the California line, where a woman named Doris raises sheep.  She had a twenty-one-baby lambing season this year, and had promised that we’d be able to bottlefeed lambs if we wanted to. (Note: click on any picture for a larger image.)

My friend Sheila picked me up in her Prius and we set out; the farm’s a little remote, on a dirt road with tricky directions, so she was glad to have a navigator and I was glad to have a ride.  She’d picked up a bag of gluten-free bread mix for me, which was very thoughtful and much appreciated.  As we jounced over one of the dirt roads to Doris’ farm, we stopped to admire a goat.  There were other goats: in fact, there were many baby goats, who hop and skip just like those adorable videos you always see of baby goats.  I’m sorry I got no pictures of them; a dog was herding them and drove them away from the road and our car, which was a sensible, protective kind of thing to do.

After several more – and progressively rougher – dirt roads, we got to Doris’ farm and saw our first lambs, who were indeed adorable.  The babies came in various sizes and colors; some were in fenced fields with their mamas, but the bottle babies were in a barn. The adult sheep wore canvas coats.  We thought maybe they’d been recently sheared and this was to protect them from sunburn, but Doris explained that it’s to keep their wool clean.  They wear the coats all the time, and as their wool grows, Doris has to take off the smaller coats and put on larger ones.  Each sheep has four coats.

I didn’t get a picture of the grown-up sheep in their coats because I was so focused on the lambs.  I loved the lambs.  Of course I saw lambs in petting zoos when I was a kid, and probably even bottlefed a few, but I don’t remember being this enchanted with them.  I wanted to take them home.

The littlest lamb came when we called her and tried to nurse on our fingers.  During the guild meeting – held outside, in a circle, as people knitted or spun – I sat close to the barn door, and whenever the littlest lamb came to the barn fence and baaaaed, I got up and gave her a bottle (Doris had left several in the barn).

Sometimes when I came into the barn she’d just look up at me, with an expression that said “Feed me!” but would refuse both the bottle and stroking.  She was testing me, I guess.

Sheila and I both especially admired the black sheep and lambs, many of whom had white blazes on their foreheads and were even cuter than the white ones.  This lamb was a bit pushy, as you can see, and as befits the reputation of black sheep.

It was really hot outside, so Sheila and I each took a few minutes’ refuge in Doris’ wonderful weaving studio, which I wanted to take home with me (with several lambs inside), and which Sheila called a “womancave.”  Sheila did take home the guild’s seven-foot triloom.  She’s going to use it to weave a shawl and then lend it to me so I can weave a shawl. This will be much easier than weaving smaller triangles and trying to sew them together in any attractive fashion, a task which has proven beyond me.

It was a lovely morning, although all that outside time has kicked my allergies into overdrive, and I’m very sleepy and sneezy.  Completely worth it, though.  If you ever get the chance to bottlefeed a lamb, do.

And my, didn’t the cats think I smelled interesting when I got home!

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.

Monday, May 07, 2012

End of an Era

1: Background

My hospital has been sold.  All of the hospitals in this area – like so many hospitals across the country – are having terrible financial problems.  If my hospital hadn’t been sold, it would have had to close.  In everything else I say here, keep in mind that closure would have been worse.

The sale’s been percolating for many months.  At one point, it looked like we’d be sold to a particular company: I got online and checked out the websites of the hospitals in their system, and a number of them had spiritual-care departments, and when I spoke to my supervisor, he confirmed that they were sympathetic to spiritual care.  So we were happy.

But that sale fell through, and we were sold to another entity, and when I checked that entity’s hospitals, none of them had spiritual care departments.  And my supervisor confirmed that fact, too, and said it didn’t look good.

2: The Plot Quickens

A few weeks ago my supervisor told me that he had been fired and that there would no longer be a Spiritual Care Department.  He didn’t know what would happen to volunteer chaplains.

This past Friday, I passed his office on my way to sign in for my shift, and ducked inside to say hi.  “Anything new?” I asked.

“Oh, yeah.  There won’t be volunteer chaplains anymore.  The last date they can work is, uh . . . “ – he checked his calendar – “the 18th.”

“Of May?  That’s in two weeks!  We haven’t gotten a letter!”

“It will go out Monday.”

I felt like I’d been sucker-punched.  I reeled through my shift, fighting periodic tears, venting to a few staff.  One doctor I hadn’t even talked to came up to me (very unusual, but it was a slow shift) and said, “I just heard. I’m so sorry.  You guys are so important.  Please let me know if there’s anything I can do to help.”

I kept wondering aloud if there’d be some way for me to stay in the ED, maybe as a patient advocate, but everyone told me I’d have to talk to the hospital’s volunteer coordinator about that, and she was on vacation.  So I finished up that shift and came home in tears, heartsick and furious.

3: Big Picture

A lot of my anger was political.  My hospital is the only one in the area that still has in-house Spiritual Care; after the change, there won’t be any.  The importance of spiritual concerns in illness and healing is pretty general knowledge these days, and after seven and a half years of doing this work, I know firsthand how much prayer, comfort and conversation mean to patients.  I literally can’t count how many patients have wept in gratitude during my visits with them, how many of them have told me that they feel better just from talking to someone like me.   I may even have played a tiny role in helping save a life or two, simply by – for instance – offering suicidal patients a different perspective on their despair.  I know for certain that during the time I’ve been volunteering, ED staff have asked at least twice for more chaplains in the department.  Emergency-medicine people are the ultimate empiricists: they aren’t going to ask for something unless they know it works.

It absolutely infuriates me that this crucial aspect of patient care is being abandoned because it doesn’t meet a corporate bottom line.  There’s no billing code for prayer.  Over the weekend, I talked to a professional chaplain who confirmed that it’s not just us: Spiritual Care Departments are being dismantled, and chaplains fired, all over the country.  This is only one more indication of the country’s economic slough.  Once again, I’d rather see departments dismissed than see entire hospitals close, although I have to wonder if Spiritual Care actually has a positive effect on the bottom line that no one’s bothered to try to measure.

4: Also, It Feels Personal

So I spent a lot of the weekend weeping and raging, not just over the dismal swamp of healthcare in general, but also over my own loss.  In case it wasn’t already obvious, I love being a volunteer chaplain, and I think I’m good at it, not least because my somewhat spiky personality is an asset, rather than a drawback, in the ED.  It’s often very difficult for me to see progress in the classroom, and I’m often despondent about my writing, but after any given volunteer shift, I can point with certainty to places where I did good work and produced palpable results.  Losing that role felt like having a body part torn off.

And this loss comes close on the heels of many others.  Over the last five years, I’ve lost both of my parents, Gary’s father, two cousins, an especially beloved cat, and my church.  The world feels a lot thinner than it did five years ago, and (like so many other people), I’ve also suffered losses connected to the inexorable tightening of standards in the university and the church.  Five years ago, I believed I would one day be both a deacon and a full professor: now I know that I won’t be either, because the level of insane hoop-jumping required to reach those spots - a function of nationwide changes in professional expectations - simply isn’t anything I want to attempt.  These decisions are choices, of course, but I’ve heard a lot of anecdotal evidence that this kind of bar-raising is happening in many other fields as well, placing a lot of jobs out of realistic reach of people who’d be very good at them.  Losing my cherished volunteer gig at the hands of a faceless corporation isn’t quite the same thing, but it pushed some of the same buttons: the powerlessness any of us feel in a world of moving targets we can’t map or predict.

Let me say here that I am also very blessed, and know it.  I’m very grateful for everything I have in a world where so many people have so much less.  That doesn’t change the fact that I’m also grieving.

It was not a good weekend.  I sent wailing e-mail to three of my clergy, cried a lot, went through some PTSD-ish bouts of anxiety when I started wondering what I was going to lose next – I probably drove Gary nuts with my clinging – and, not to put too fine a point on it, was a mess.  To be fair, I also did research.  My supervisor had recommended that I move over to being a hospice volunteer, and I talked to a hospice chaplain who said that I’d be very welcome.

5: Cautious Optimism and Tentative Plans

Today was much better.  I talked to the hospital’s volunteer coordinator, who sympathized completely and gave me a huge hug; I once visited her and a sick family member in the ED, and she’s a fan. She said that I should indeed be able to remain in the ED as a “patient advocate.”  I’ll have to reapply, as everyone else at the hospital will.  I’ll have to be retrained.  I won’t be able to say the word “God:” she said there are very strict rules about that.  But I’ll be able to stay in a place I know, where people know me, and I’ll be able to keep helping patients.

She also told me that the last day for volunteer chaplains isn’t the 18th.  It’s the 11th: this Friday, not next.  I have one more shift.

Today’s shift was full and busy and confirmed, yet again, the value of volunteer chaplains.  I prayed with a newlywed whose spouse was on life support, and who thanked me copiously.  I prayed with a woman who wept in gratitude and squeezed my hand.  I cheered up a lot of people just by popping in and asking if they needed to talk.

The doctor who’d come up to me on Friday was working today, too.  I told her about the patient-advocate gig and said, “I could move to hospice, but I’d rather stay here.”  She smiled and said, “We’d rather you stayed here!” which of course made me feel good.

I saw another doctor and filled her in.  When I said, “I can stay here, but I can’t say the word ‘God,’” she rolled her eyes and said, “You have got to be kidding me.  Well, just do what you always do and call it something else.”

Exactly.  And again, lots of what I do – talking to people about advanced directives, giving out the number of the crisis-call line, calling shelters to try to find beds for homeless patients – doesn’t involve explicit mention of God anyway.  Preach the Gospel without ceasing; use words when necessary.  The trick now will be finding safely secular words.

When I went upstairs to sign out, I ran into a social worker who usually works in the ED.  I briefed her, and she said, “We’re going to need advocates, big time.”

So that’s sounding like a plan, but I won’t believe anything until it happens.  I have no idea how long it will take for the new volunteer training to happen.  In the meantime, I’m going to call hospice and check on their training schedule, since they only do trainings once or twice a year and I’d hate to miss out.  I’m hoping that their training will be far enough down the road that I can try the patient-advocate role first, see how I like it, and switch to hospice if it doesn’t work out.

Over the weekend, I got supportive, sympathetic responses from two of the clergy I e-mailed.  Today the third, my rector, called.  He told me that he always needs pastoral-care help in the parish, people to help with hospital and home visits.  So that’s another possibility.

I really do love the ED, though.  I love the clinical setting, the snippets of Cool Medicine I get to overhear, the sheer diversity of the department.   So I’m really hoping that being a godless patient advocate will fill the bill for me, although there will certainly be challenges.  Today – as happens fairly often – a patient recognized me from a previous hospital visit, and thanked me for praying with her then.  What will I do if that happens after the changeover and the patient asks me for prayer now?

“Point at the ceiling,” said Gary, my creative nondenominational pagan.  “Use the Voldemort strategy:  Pray to He-She-It Who Must Not Be Named.”  

Actually, I’d probably break the rules, say the G-word, and hope that no one called the cops.  But it’s going to be very interesting to see how all this works!