“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.