Hospital chaplaincy teaches a great number of quick lessons:
-Don’t piss off the nurses, because once you do, you’ll be getting paged in the middle of the night to sit with the most ornery and angsty of patients, just because.
-Use those Purell stations every time you enter and exit a patient room…even when you don’t enter and exit a patient room. They serve a really important purpose, and can even save a life.
-It is perfectly ok to cry with a patient and/or their family, and some even appreciate this kind and sensitive gesture.
-Ask questions, and truly listen. Don’t be the one to constantly talk with a meaningless agenda.
-Don’t be afraid to ask if they would like to pray, and don’t be afraid for your offer to be rejected. God through the Spirit is still present in the interaction, regardless of whether a prayer was spoken, and your interaction was DEFINITELY sacred.
-When visiting a patient, look into their eyes, not at their wounds, the number of tubes or wires they have attached to their failing, frail and diseased bodies. There are people in white coats and scrubs coming in and out of their rooms all day staring at anything but their faces, so don’t be yet another person who doesn’t see the soul behind their eyes.
One of the most incredible initiatives Mount Sinai Medical Center (MSMC) in Manhattan, the place where I had my five heart surgeries performed over the last 14 months, has undertaken is to teach its medical staff how to see patients not for their diseases and circumstances, but for their humanity. Mount Sinai is a tertiary care facility, and thus sees the sickest of patients, frequently with the rarest of conditions, like mine. These patients often are seeking treatment after having been turned down at other centers, or are in need of a higher and more advanced level of care; MSMC also provides a great level of outreach to the surrounding community of people who might not otherwise receive care – those who don’t have health insurance, who haven’t been able to receive the care they needed for one reason or another. Regardless, this isn’t a shameless plug for MSMC, because I will never be able to thank Mount Sinai for the care I have received, and I doubt they will ever see this. Medical practitioners are taught to not see cases, statistics, numbers, procedures and surgeries, but to see the person behind them – where these people have been, their families, their circumstances, their communities, their hopes and their dreams.
People are more than one aspect, one circumstance, one disease, even if they should choose to let that one thing define them. In a society that so easily stigmatizes…mental illness, race, gender, sexual orientation, religious affiliation, political party, job title, social class, physical ability, TAKE YOUR PICK…the one thing any of us should have any say over is how we are perceived by ourselves, because it can be said without a shadow of a doubt that the Lord our God sure doesn’t stigmatize based on ANY of those things. Society likes to categorize, perhaps out of comfort: “My name is ____, I’m a ______, _______, ______.” Take social media for example. Facebook asks us to pick our likes and dislikes, favorites, and constantly bombards us to like pages for various artists, politicians, groups, etc. In liking these things, we are put into categories with other people who are apparently “just like us.” But are they really? Why can’t we all be unique? What if I don’t want to fit into a box? If God desired us to all be exactly alike, then wouldn’t we all look, act, walk, talk and think the same?
We are more than the sum total of a single event, and a single life event or decision does not and should not define who we are and what we are to become. If that were so, then life would be rather hopeless. The most incredible thing about what MSMC is doing is that it is teaching the current and next generation of physicians to see patients as people (which they always were, but most forget to remember) who are also dealing with life-altering, and at times life-transforming illnesses. These things, whether they are illnesses, death, marriages and divorces, a cross-country or international move, a new job, a dog, or a “come to Jesus” moment, all have the power to transform who we are, and sometimes, the people around us lose a grip of the fact that we are still humans, despite the fact that we are undergoing some sort of transformation. We have lives, hopes, dreams, desires, and wishes for the days, weeks, months, and years to come, and we need others to help fulfill that.
Hospital Chaplains help with that; they see the face of Christ in the patients they visit with in the most dire of circumstances. They have the ability to remove the patient from the circumstance, even if only for a moment, to not inflict physical harm, and to bring them somewhere completely different. They have the tools and the opportunity to bless patients – should they choose to use it – by seeing them as who God created them to be…as full human beings: as mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, farmers, politicians, knitters, readers, lovers of music and art, certain TV shows, of dogs and cats, of rain showers and snow, of summer and beaches, of husbands and wives, of sons and daughters…and not simply an illness, bad situation, downturn in life, whatever it may be.
We are not a snapshot, a moment in life. If that were so, I would be who I am right now for the rest of my life. I will always be someone growing, changing, with hopes, dreams and a growing potential, and hospital chaplains and physicians have the opportunity to recognize this in others, especially those longing to have this drawn out of them when all else seems futile and impossible. I’m grateful that this program is being piloted, and have seen it at work in my EP, a very pastoral, honest and upfront man. The world of medicine could learn a lot from him, and I have as a pastoral caregiver as well.
May we as caregivers see the face of Christ in those longing to be seen as Children of God, and may those honestly and authentically suffering be seen as something more than the sum total of their physical and emotional pain. God, grant us authenticity, honesty and wisdom to care, be present, and a capacity for compassion for someone other than ourselves.
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