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Lessons Learned in Hospital Rooms

Written by J Punt

“Death is one of the elemental mysteries of our existence. Still our culture succeeds to an astounding degree at insulating us from it. Considering the frequency and inevitability of death, it is astonishing how well we are able to avoid and deny its reality. But that avoidance diminishes us.”

—Eugene Peterson

A few weeks ago, I finished a chaplaincy internship at Duke Hospital that was primarily focused on the pediatric floors. This was the most rewarding aspect of my seminary education by far and included some of one of the most impactful experiences of my life in general up to this point. It’s hard to believe how many extremely intense situations fit themselves into four months. My first overnight shift, I sat with two women while their daughter/sister was being actively resuscitated after a routine c section went horribly wrong. I was with them when they had to give the doctors permission to end chest compressions and let her go. A few nights later, I spent several hours with a mother whose son had been shot in the chest, and after a day of emergency surgeries and ineffective blood transfusions, worked up the courage to go into his room and say goodbye. I quickly learned that when you’re thrown into incredibly heavy situations, it’s impossible to not be changed by them, to not learn something about God in all of it.

The first thing I learned is that the world can’t fully escape its hunger for what our faith has to offer. I mean, when you really think about it, isn’t it kind of crazy that even in a highly secularized, pluralistic cultural context in which teachers aren’t allowed to pray with their students or talk with them about God from a particular faith perspective, the one person who is called in for every death in our hospitals is someone whose primary job responsibility is prayer? What else is there to do when the unimaginable has broken into someone’s life, when medical science has done its best but to no avail, than to grope desperately for the one who has made us, to ask God to hold our shattered spirits, and to beg that one day God would make good on his promise to bring final restoration to everything, even to these unimaginable moments?

Going into the internship, I was nervous about explicitly representing Christianity in a public context where the Christian faith was as likely to be ignored or actively hated by any given patient/family I interacted with. But I learned that when I entered a patient’s room with no other agenda than to love people like I believe Jesus would, I was met with openness and welcome. The gift, I think working with sick people and their families taught me so much is because it’s so obvious that they need compassion and care first and foremost. In reality, this is probably what everyone is hungry for, but outside of the hospital, things get more complicated. We get caught up in the culture wars and our faith can become a philosophy, or a talking point rather than a way of life, a way of love.

I also learned is that the discomfort, anxiety, and sometimes outright dread of being in difficult situations can feel outweighed by the sense of purpose that comes with living through them. To be honest, there were times when being a chaplain felt awful. Some nights, it was horrible to try to fall asleep in the on-call sleep room knowing that the pager could always go off, waking you up to anything from the operator getting the wrong number to a bloody, chaotic scene in the ER. When you were called to something more like the latter, it was really hard to keep your feet planted in the room when all you wanted to get away from such a painful situation. Somehow though, the sense of purpose I got from doing my best, through the power of the Spirit, to make myself available to those hurting so badly made me want to go back and do my best again the next time.

The third thing I learned (and this is going to be harder to explain so bear with me): no amount of human attention is ever enough for us to be known as we were meant to be known. Sometimes I feel like attention is the currency of my generation. Follows, views, retweets, etc. are worth more than gold to many of us. When I was with dying people in the hospital, one thing I always wrestled with was the fact that I could never give people the attention, the emotional and spiritual seenness that I felt like they deserved. Though none of the patients/families I visited with deserved to be forgotten, there were some nights when even by the next morning critical conversations about death, end of life, suffering, God and the afterlife all began to blur together. When you’re a chaplain who sees so much death, you can only be present with families to a certain extent. And this humble extent feels dramatically short of what is right for them. Nevertheless, while I reflected on the limits of my spiritual and emotional attention, it encouraged me to remember these families were seen by their creator. Even though I can’t, God holds the precious moments of their grief, loss, and closing of an earthly chapter in his memory forever. No human being can give us the full amount of attention and recognition we were created for. We were created to be known and loved by a mind and heart of infinite depth. I am grateful for the way this became real to me while I was in the hospital and the all the ways this experience changed my perspective on both life and death. God’s love is apparent even in sickness and death.

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