Saturday, January 28, 2006

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.


Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Trinity Irish Dancing Company

This weekend my sister Torrey was kind enough to get me free tickets to see the Trinity Irish Dancing Company perform in Palos Hills, IL. Eric Sundrup and Patrick Gilday joined me in attending the event.

Now, anyone who knows my tastes in Irish music will know that I love the tradition. I am often frustrated when I encounter musicians who play Irish tunes and, by this fact, believe themselves to be Irish musicians. There's something to be said for allowing oneself to be immersed in the flow of the tradition, to be informed by it, and when all is said and done, to be confident enough in adding one's own voice to it.

Well, the best of the Irish tradition was shown forth on Saturday. I was terrifically impressed by the caliber of the dancing, the enthusiasm of the dancers, and proud to call this performance a part of my heritage. Being its first show of the season there were a few blunders and there are a number of new dancers who've still quite a bit to learn, but all in all the show was very well done.

I deliver my first "verbatim" today. A verbatim is basically a case study of one patient visit I've made, highlighting significant dialogue, my feelings during and after the visit, and a protracted reflection on how it elevates to consciousness various aspects of import to my pastoral education. It's a laborious thing to write and I'm glad I have only three more to do, one of which I'll work on tomorrow afternoon.

Thanks to everyone who has posted/emailed me about my post from early Saturday morning. Sadly, not long after I posted that did I have to rush to be with the family of a dying child. It was an emotionally draining night, but I'm so glad that I am here.

In fact, I should post this as a caveat: often enough, I need to process my thoughts and feelings "in the open." While I can do this by talking, I find writing to be helpful and I love blogging because it forces me to organize my thoughts (somewhat) into a (mildly) coherent form. What I write here is, in effect, a first-level reflection that invites conversation and puts out for the world to see what I'm doing and feeling...typical extrovert that I am!

So thanks to everyone who has posted replies and sent me lovely emails. I wish I had the time to reply, but I really am very busy. As I think I indicated before, I don't finish dinner until about 8:30 in the evening and, at that point, I've little energy for writing emails. I usually watch one of the 500+ CSI programs with some of the other guys or I go to bed.

On that note, I must be off. I'm going to start my assigned patient visits early today so I can spend some time with patients I met this weekend.


Saturday, January 14, 2006

Working at 2:00 am

It's just about 2:00 am and this is the first time I've sat down since I arrived at 6:00 pm. It has been an exhausting shift so far.

This evening I was with two people as they died. In neither case was the death expected to come as it did and I had the privilege of accompanying the family members in negotiating the first cataracts of grief and loss. To pray with them, to be with them at this vulnerable time is a great grace...a great honor...and in the best possible way, a blessed burden. I find myself searching for words, for gestures, for ways of being more present to them and their needs. And yet, in spite of all my attempts, I find myself giving way to something else, the holy Other who works through each of us, and I realize that any comfort provided to these people is not of my account, but through God using this imperfect minister to convey a healing presence.

I'm often tempted to write about my struggle with faith. I believe because I pray...and sometimes my beliefs are strained to near-breaking. I admit this candidly now, but the inner terrain of my faith life is rugged and often bleak. But I cannot doubt the existence of God...and I will admit that there are times that I have tried. Embarrassed am I to admit that there are times I wish I could be an atheist, times when I wish that I could live my life as though it were mine alone, times when I want to feel uncalled and un-chosen because it would be easier, more lucrative, or more fun. This is my struggle and perhaps it is my curse that I will always wrestle with nagging doubts that give way on occasion to moments of tremendous insight and great confirmation.

Tonight, I received such a confirmation.

Due to exigent circumstances, I was called upon to baptize a very ill baby. With the parents and several nurses present, I performed the baptismal rite. I poured the water on the baby's head, watching it run down her forehead in small rivulets that ran down the side of her face to be absorbed in the white cloth upon which she rested. I prayed the "Our Father" with the family, realizing how profoundly the prayer speaks of our radical contingency and dependence on God for all that we have and call our own. I prayed with a mother who taught me of dispossesive love - true love, a love that is poured out freely and sometimes painfully that seeks no return, no recompense, but is poured out nonetheless in order to be 'wasted' on the life of another person. And as this love is 'wasted' and spent prodigally, the ache of heart's bleeding echoes deep within us, reminding us of our humanity, drawing us to humility.

Tonight, I welcomed into the Christian community through baptism a new sister, a new child with a story to tell and to be told, a part of creation whose life lay before her to be measured not in years but in hours, a life that has touched my own life and the lives of so many others in the most profound of ways. Tonight I enacted the hospitality of God, a God who makes room for others at the table and invites them in anointing them as guests.

I can't write anything else. I suspect I'm breaking some regulation now...but this is something I must share, I feel, or else it will be lost.

I'll be in bed until tomorrow afternoon - I still have six hours on my shift left to go. It's going to be a long night, and I think I'll spend some of it in the chapel. God and I have much to talk about.

Friday, January 06, 2006

Mid-Way through my LONG DAY


I was pleasantly suprised a few minutes ago to log into my email account to find the inbox simply bursting with correspondences. It was good to hear from Abba Enyak (Father of Ethan "Ryan wanted to name me Rahner" Abercrombie). It seems that Eric (Enyak is his Ryan-christened name) might soon be moving to Florida where his wife will make loads of money and Eric will be gainfully employed by a hospital and they will be happy to hire a Jesuit tutor to come to Florida to tutor their son in theology.

I spent the last eight hours doing what were here at Loyola Medical Center call "Magis" training. Magis, Latin for more, is the disposition to patient care that employees are to strive from. Although our trainer did not put it as such, the attempt to strive for the "more" in any setting originates with the recognition that any job worth doing at all is worth doing well. Too often we approach tasks with an attitude of "good enough" but striving for the magis enjoins upon each of us to do more, to meet our customer or patient in the midst of chaos or hurt or disorientation in order to meet more fully that person's needs. For Ignatius Loyola, this magis was not undertaken to get good customer-service evaluations, but was generated by his desire to do all things for the greater glory of God.

This paragraph, with the addition of a few sentences, could have sufficiently covered the material that I just spent four hours of my day learning. Yep, I'm drinking from the cup of bitterness and I'm thinking about ordering the whole dang bottle!!

At least hippa was interesting...not. (Note: Hipaa is not a girl hippo; it is, rather, a set of directives concerning patient privacy).

So anyway, my day is now half over. The boring half, at least. At 6:00 I have to attend a "fitness center" orientation and then I begin my on-call shift at 6:30 which will go until 12:00am. I'm pretty nervous, really: I wore a nice tie today and I don't want anyone to bleed or sneeze on it. Truthfully, I am very excited about this evening and really hope that I am able to be with people in their hours of dire need.

I was able to celebrate with a large family the sacrament of the sick yesterday. The priest who anointed the woman is from Ireland and is a lovely man of deep faith and prayer. It was hard not to be moved, to not see the healing power of God's grace as a family gathered to pray with one another for their mother/grandmother/wife. This makes me sad when I think how we often take our health for granted and resist or neglect to say the things we can and should say when we are well and wait, sometimes too long, until sickness presses us to say what we should have been saying all along. There's a mouthful! I hope this woman knew during her life how special she is to her family and I hope that they took the opportunity to tell her many times before...not the words are wasted now, but I can't help but to think that much healing and life-giving love could have been shared so much earlier had family members taken the initiative to share with one another.

So that does it for today. I'm heading over to Loyola University Chicago tomorrow afternoon to spend time with the scholastics (Jesuits in the first-studies program) and possibly see a movie. I want to see Hostel but I don't know that there will be many takers to see it with me. I'm cooking dinner for my community on Sunday and then I will be at the gym bright and early on Monday morning, followed by a full day's work. It's busy, but I'm so glad to be doing something!

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

And so it begins...

As of this moment, I've completed my first two days of Clinical Pastoral Education. I should offer this as a caveat: my reaction to this program will be havily biased for no other reason than the program affords me the opportunity to wear a white lab coat. It's a simple thing, to be sure, but anyone who remembers me from my pre-med days will recall that I always wanted a lab coat. My dream has come true.

Truthfully, this is going to be a draining and demanding experience. Due to confidentiality issues, I'm nervous about talking too freely about the happenings at the hospital. This is such a graced time in my life in that I am able to companion people at their most vulnerable stages and I do not want to say or do anything that would compromise the integrity of the relationships I develop. As time passes, I'll certainly explore my own reactions, but I doubt highly whether I'll share funny necdonte from the hospital...unless, of course, they involve me alone.

I don't know how often I'll post or, for those of you with whom I chat on the telephone, how often I'll be in contact. There is so much work to do! For instance, my shift on Friday is 8:00 am - 12:00 am...yep, sixteen hours! I pick up my gym membership tomorrow and hope that I'll not be too tired to make good use of it.

I would be remiss not to mention the profound gratitude I feel for the community with whom I am living. It would not be hyperbole to say that I am living with some of the most generous, funny, and talented men the Society of Jesus claims as its own. I am humbled to sit at their table and proud to call them my brothers. If I could expect but a sliver of this as my future, I would rest assured that I had a great future of community living in store for me.

It's 9:36 and I'm old, so I'm going to bed. Good night!

Flute playing priest finds YouTube fame