Last Breaths

I came to the hospital with televised notions of death. I came thinking of scenes from crime shows and legal shows, where death had already happened or where death came swiftly. I’ve probably read of deaths in fiction where the event stretched a bit. Fanciful notions that never prepared me for being in the room, in the area where that angel hovers. There is nothing like seeing death enter a space, move from one corner to another, and linger.

It seems to me that most deaths come slowly. People die in all kinds of ways. Death is dramatic and traumatic in many cases. Murders and long-term illness. Crimes of passion and crimes of technology. Decisions made by people who care too much and people who don’t care enough. Each can be an agent of death.

I’m learning that life is precious, fragile. The air we have in our lungs is phenomenal in what it does. Lungs make things in our bodies. But that breath leaves. It’s departure sober and quiet. Sometimes it takes a long time for a person to take her last breath. Other times breathing vanished before we really knew it, before the help arrived, before saving interventions began. We had already died, already surrendered to something else, some place else.

Contemplating last breaths makes the next one different. Seeing last breaths daily or almost daily both unhinges me for the silly ways I hear myself wasting air and anchors me in the coming reality of whatever is next. It is certainly a part of my practice that we live toward something and someone and some place beyond these. It makes me italicize last in my mind. Hopefully it’s a spark that ignites better living.


Advent Post #20

“…for the Mighty One has done great things for me.” (Luke 1:49)

I stood and listened to a patient who told me how remarkable God had been in his healing process. And like other times, I received a gift in that man’s retelling. He spoke to me about how from start-to-finish God had been present.

That doesn’t happen every day in the hospital. There are people who struggle to locate the Presence as they fight disease. There are relatives who want nothing to do with a chaplain or the God she or he may bring. God and God’s things are toxic to some when their bodies are sick. God and God’s things do not bring healing to them. Of course, as a pastor and chaplain I find those to be reasons to keep praying, even if quietly for my patients and their families.

On occasion, though, and the occasion is often I’m happy to say, a patient will be quite clear that “God has done this.” One man told me for 30 minutes the story of God’s company in his healing. Since my units at Northwestern Memorial are the general surgery and medical intensive care units, I tend to see some of our hospital’s sickest patients. I tend to see people just before or just after a surgery. I see people when they feel very close or very distant from God.

This gentleman, a man afraid of needles and things, talked to me about how God had changed him. God turned him toward healing by doing the plain, almost unremarkable act of having him go to the doctor, obey the doctor, and keep obeying the doctor. He followed his wife’s instruction and kept following it. And God kept working through each act of surrender. Eventually–and I am using Mary’s song to summarize my patient’s experience–the Mighty One did something great.

I don’t know that I’ve always seen God’s acts in unremarkable acts. I’ve certainly developed that appreciation to spot God in the ordinary. I want to raise that as an ideal. Looking for God in the mundane expands our potential for finding God. If we seek, whether at this liturgical moment or another, to find God in the spectacular, we’ll usually be let down.

“God will heal me from this despite the doctor’s report,” just may be one such moment. It’s a spectacular prayer and hope, and I find myself supporting many who say and hold such statements in their hearts. But it takes as much (perhaps it takes more or frankly less) faith to state that God will be with me through the long course of some thing, that God will walk with me through a pregnancy (like Mary) or a cancer treatment (like a friend, Grace) or a job search or a move to a new city. God who does things in spectacular ways also does things in ways we hardly notice.

Of course, any time God does something, anything, it’s worth our calling it “great.” Does it have to be a mountain that is moved for us to call it amazing? Or does it only have to be something an amazing One did?

“I’m Still Scared”

The first day or so into my residency I heard my supervisor utter from the corner a response that I scribbled into my calendar. I swipe quotes from people like free gifts, and his words were a little gift to me–a gift I’ve looked at and played with ever since.

We were gathered as interns and residents and going through the initial orientation to life in CPE at Northwestern Memorial. We were just starting our adjustment into life as chaplains at the area’s premier academic medical center. Some of us had never been in a hospital setting for CPE. A few of us had been in 3 or 4 hospitals before to serve as chaplains.

I don’t remember who said they were scared. I couldn’t quote them if I did for the confidences we keep. But I’ll out my supervisor since I won’t name him. The person had said in a sigh that they were afraid, and he said to the comment, “I’m still scared.” We had already heard a bit about how long he’d been in ministry, and his reaction in those three words, together, were a life raft.

It was an immediate frame of vulnerability and risk and strength, his words.  I’ve thought about the many reasons to fear in this ministry.

The ministry of serving others in a congregation brings fears. I know that as a pastor who has served in churches for close to 15 years. The same is true for the role of a chaplain in a medical setting. We should fear. We should name our fears. They are real and they are credible. We could really muck things up.

And, of course, fear isn’t the only feeling in the room. There are other emotions. And all of them, like voices in a chorus, will be heard. Tenors and sopranos and every other important voice needs to be respected as it sings.

I’ve heard the fear with each beep of the pager. I like to tell my colleagues that the 3 to 4AM hour is my golden hour when I’m on-call. I’ve always been paged at that hour for, at least, one trauma. But with each page, with each shift, the fear gets smaller.

I can see how it works now. I know a lot about what will happen. Of course, there is the long spectrum of surprises that comes with any interaction. I don’t know how it will go with that next person who’s in crisis. That’s the beauty of it for me. The beauty of seeing what will be said, seeing how I’ll listen better, seeing how God will move between us.

But the fear part, the part of me that didn’t know what to expect is schooled by these first 4-5 on-call shifts now. I know what it looks like for a response team to descend upon a quiet floor when a patient is “crashing.” I know the frenetic, nervous space filled by firefighters and police officers and nurses while respiratory therapists are working to help a gunshot victim breathe. Those fears are decreasing.

Yes, I’m still afraid. This feels especially true this morning, after the night we’ve witnessed in Missouri. But I’m less afraid. And that feels like a part of the goal for life and for CPE. To be less fearful. To have those fears respected and known but less in control.

I’ll go to the next patient visit with less anxiety. I’ll feel more like myself as I sit with someone whose loved one just slipped away after the ventilator has been removed, after their breath has left their bodies for that final time.

And though, like my supervisor, I’ll still be afraid, I’ll be stronger, and I’ll be more in my skin as a less anxious presence. At least those are my hopes as I finish this on-call shift, as I walk out of the hospital and face the rest.