I wanted to post at several points during my shift on Friday, but there never was a proper window of time allowing me to do so. Indeed, although I was not wholly occupied with immediate patient needs, I had to be at the ready to spend time with a family whose 1-day old son was/is desperately ill.
There is a great irony in that I wrote how my stance when being present to one mired in suffering strives to be a stance of empathic listening. As the night crawled forward, I heard the plaintive cries of a mother shouting into the whirlwind of suffering and doubt, "Why? Why my baby? WHY? WHY? WHY?" Every fiber of my being strained to find an answer to why her full-term baby languished, his body wracked by a bacterial infection that ravaged his lungs. I wanted nothing more to comfort this young mother, to encourage the young resident who called upon all her skills to regulate the baby's blood pressure and increased the level of oxygen in his blood. I wanted so say something, to fill that void, and yet I took my own advice and stood mute. I prayed, I listened, I held the mother as her body quivered with heaving sobs, and I said nothing.
Fortunately, the baby's blood pressure was stabilized at 6:30 am and I was asked to baptize him. As I did in January, I welcomed this child into the community of Christian believers. And as I stood to the side to fill out the Baptismal certificate, I asked one of the veteran RN's what she said to comfort patients when they searched desperately for answers for their "why" questions. Her gaze penetrated deep into my heart when she said, "Nothing. I say nothing. Sometimes I say 'I don't know' but, more often than not, I say nothing." She then thanked me for not offering empty platitudes to the mother, saying that she appreciated having the "silent presence" of the chaplain rather than someone who tried to offer hollow words to comfort that which could not be assuaged.
I know Mary Ellen English (Shot out to the mother of my music students!) is a frequent reader of this blog. She often writes lovely emails in response to my posts, emails that teach me so much of what kind of service pastoral ministers do provide. I hope that she's not mortified by my mentioning her here, but I would like to solicit from her and from my readers - particularly doctors and nurses - what their thoughts are on the issue. What has helped in crisis situations? What has not helped? What do you see as being of the greatest assistance both to the medical staff and to the family?
If nothing else, this might accomplish something of a dialogue as well as sharing the enormous wisdom your experience has generated.
On another front, I was correct in my assumption that, on Wednesday, the patient would die. I was able to visit her and her family early in the afternoon. Her eyes were vacant and rolled back and her voice was forced. Each inhaled breath rattled in her chest and, on each exhale, a stomach-turning gurgling sound was made, not unlike the sound little kids make when the slurp the last bit of soda from the bottom of a cup. I prayed with them and said goodbye to the patient and, two hours later, I was paged back to the room to pray with them as she slipped away.