Return to the Overnight Shift

Well, it's 2:00 am and I'm at the hospital. My evening started off rather quietly at 6:00 and it wasn't until 8:30 that we had our first trauma. After that, we were inundated with arrivals and Ruth (the other chaplain) and I are only now returning to the Pastoral Care office where we will wait with nervous anticipation for our next page.

The one death tonight was the result of a single gunshot wound to the face. The patient, so the doctors say, probably died instantly and his death was proclaimed shortly after his arrival at the ER. It took quite some time for the staff to figure out the man's identity...several hours to figure out his name.

Several things occur to me at this time. First, this young man woke up this morning and showered and got dressed and probably never thought that this would be the last time he ate his corn flakes or ate Jell-O. Maybe stopped at the Post Office to send the last payment for his car...maybe he paid off his student loan. Did he speak to his loved ones of marriage? Did he say something he later came to regret?

In a face frozen in death, blank eyes reveal nothing. Eyes that strain to see, but perceive nothing more than the black veil of death. I felt somewhat morbid as I stared down at his slightly-agape mouth, coagulated blood around his nose. And it made me so sad to think that this man died so violently and that he was alone when it happened. It made me sad to know that I was staring at a man admitted as "Doe" because there was no ID on the body. It made me sad to think that this is a man who had loved and had been loved, a man who was somebody's baby boy, a man whose life had been cut short by the simple pull of a trigger.

There have been other traumas tonight - a teen shot, a young man stabbed. But this death lingers with me. We are so used to seeing the deaths called on ER or on cable television. These deaths tend to be dramatic affairs and once all heroic means are exhausted, we cut to a commercial and our show returns after 2 minutes to a newly-cleaned trauma bay. This is not how it works in reality, it seems. Instead the curtain is drawn and the body is unceremoniously stripped of its clothing and placed into a cold plastic bag. No effort is made to clean the body. Dried blood caked in the hair, blood spattered on the sheets, eyes still staring toward the ceiling and a mouth frozen in wordless expression.

I do not want to sanitize death. I do not want its horror and sadness to dissipate or be lost on me. I want to feel sad when faced with loss.

So what now? My partner has decided to get some rest, leaving me with the on-call pager. In a sense, the whole hospital now belongs to me. What do I do? Sit here in the office and blog? Saunter through the hallways wraithlike hoping that no traumas are called?

I don't recall ever being afraid of the dark. I probably was at some point, but I don't seem to remember it. But there is a part of me that aches to see the sun rise, to see that the shadows have been chased away and to know that patients will have one more day on earth. There is a young man who may have watched the sun rise yesterday and will this day see the darkness of a body bag. It's so easy to take so much for granted.

There was a time - a long time, in fact - that I toyed with being a physician. I wanted to help people, to mend bones and bodies. My desire to help people is what led me to the Society of Jesus. This desire continues to animate my sense of call, drawing me into the service of others from Chicago to Wyoming, from an Indian reservation to a hospital to a kindergarten. There is a difference, though: I suspect that I will always be blessedly frustrated with the aide I provide here, becaue it's hard to see a healed soul. Bones mend, wounds leave scars, but there is tangible proof of success. The success of helping to heal the spirit is much more ephemeral, much more fleeting. A smile, a squeeze of the hand, the resolve to keep on trying, the ability to say "I love you" with a last breath...signs to some of the strength of the human condition, a sign to others of the power of God's grace, and a sign to me of both working together.

Enough blither for tonight. I'm off to see what new adventure awaits. If something happens, I'll be sure to write about it.

G'night!
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