Saturday, October 27, 2012


I'm not a fan of blood and guts. I don't like violence in television or the movies (despite my fascination with medical dramas) and I hate horror films. I remember leaving Finding Private Ryan just feeling angry at the makers of the film for exposing me to it. Andrew - a longtime fan of the horror movie genre specifically and scary stuff in general - started early on in our relationship with previewing films that he suspected were too intense for me. That's right, just like my mother used to do when I was five. He learned his lesson when we were dating and I hadn't told him that I hated horror movies yet. I let him take me to some high profile remake, the one with the zombies and the people in the mall, so he wouldn't think I was a wimp. After I spent the whole movie hiding in my hoodie and then had nightmares for a week following the jig was up. I was relieved that it wasn't a deal breaker and haven't seen a horror movie since.

So you can imagine that my husband was a little, oh shall we say curious as to how I would handle working at his hospital, which among other things receives all the major trauma cases for our states and four others. I was curious too. Actually I was scared - broken bodies scare me on tv and I find contemplating other sorts of health disasters is also anxiety producing.  Before this internship I wouldn't let Andrew tell me any stories from the neurology ICU - aneurysms and strokes freak me out. Don't even get me started on burns, or the stories he has to tell from the pediatric ICU. The list goes on. This was one reason I was attracted to this particular site for my chaplaincy internship. I think in many cases somewhere inside a fear is an invitation. I figured this hospital was full of stuff that terrified me so I should probably go there.

I'm not going to write particular stories or vignettes from my experiences with patients at the hospital here in this blog, at least not while my internship is ongoing.  And I've had so many big moments, even now less than half way through, that it is difficult for me to figure out how to blog about the stuff I'm learning without illustrating it with stories about the people I am working for and with.  Not all of the big moments are traumatic - some are just calm pastoral visits with people whose tenacity for life or courage in facing their death ring like a bell in my soul. Other stuff has been pretty intense by anyone's standards. Whenever a patient goes into cardiac or respiratory arrest and a code is called the chaplain on call responds as part of the code team.  If the patient has family present than my role is to be with them, because no one else on the code team is there primarily for the family.  If there is no family present - which is much more likely in my experience so far - then there isn't an active role for me.  Yet I usually stay. Because in all the hustle and busyness of a code - the chest thumping and bagging and command central like feel of the thing - in all of that there is still a human being in there standing on that line between death and life. The medical personnel can't afford, emotionally or otherwise, to be present to that part. I can, and doing so is something that I don't have words yet to describe.

Here is what I can say: the hospital is this incredible thin space in the universe, a place where the lines between dead and alive, crazy and sane, knower and learner, minister and minstered-to, the sacred and the stuff of the gritty and real are really thin. People cross over back and forth from one to the other - those who work there and those who are there because they are sick. I find that when I am not at the hospital I'm not burdened, but what I do carry is a sense that the whole world is a little more beautiful and I am quite aware of my own vulnerability within it. Tears spring to my eyes a little easier.  I need more hugs.

Oh, and there is nothing there for me to fear. Every time I go with trepidation into a terrifying situation I meet a human being - that's the great thing about being a chaplain(intern). The other stuff - the broken bones and breathing tubes, the crazy eyes and broken hearts, the terminal diagnosis, whatever, it's not as important as the person I get to be with. In fact the best thing is that I get to be the hospital employee(okay, volunteer but still) who helps patients remember this about themselves - in the whirlwind of doctors, nurses, pokes, prods, and financial paperwork I get to ask different questions and pay attention to the parts of the people in the hospital bed that are not defined by their diagnosis. I get to provide comfort if I can, a listening ear if they want, and if nothing else to bear witness to the thin-space moments in a way that other medical personnel cannot.

I struggle with anxiety sometimes, but it is rarely specific. This work gives me perspective on that abstract anxiety - when I enter a hospital room it is never about me and it is always about the deep and sacred humanity of whoever I am there to see.  It's hard to give energy to my own anxious thoughts in the context of this work. And, lucky for me, I've got a lot of resources to go to when I need a hug.


  1. what a powerful experience. transformative, I imagine. it IS a sacred space to enter and hold, and it takes a special kind of person to do that with such grace.

  2. What a beautiful post. You eloquently put into words much of my experience working as a hospital social worker. thank you for sharing your powerful experiences.

  3. I am tearing up. You articulated this role and space so beautifully... I was an L&D nurse for a good number of years and then experienced being on the receiving end of some amazing chaplains when I lost my first daughter's life and nearly my own. The thin space you speak is palpable. I absolutely agree. And I cannot begin to thank you for the compassion and the empathy you have for those entrusted in your care. I remember each and every chaplain I spent time with with such warmth and gratitude. They did remind me I was human...and that grieving is often a part of that experience. They gave me permission to be raw.

  4. It sounds like you're a wonderful chaplain!