I’ve always been a fan of small humbling experience per day. Reminds us that we’re human and not “all that.” I must have gotten behind on the one per day quota so last week the Universe decided to make up for it.
Every day the chaplain receives a list of patient referrals, some by request, other just automatically generated. On this day there are only two. This means I can spend time doing follow-up visits.
The first patient waves and smiles at me as I stand in the doorway gelling my hands. She looks fun! I walk in and she immediately and quite passionately begins talking to me pointing to lines and tubes going in and out of her. In spite of her passion, I have no idea what she is saying. I can’t even identify the language! I give her what I can only describe as feeble blessing sign and walk out. Her nurse is standing in the hallway.
“I’m so sorry,” I say. “What language is she speaking?”
“Ukrainian. We have to use an iPad interpreter for everything. Don’t worry about it, I’ll page you if she has any spiritual needs.”
The next patient is a young man. I knock on his door and then crack it open. The shades are drawn, the lights are out and he is lying on his side. Is he sleeping? I walk in and quietly introduce myself. “Hi, I’m Debra from Spiritual Care. I just came by to see how you are doing. Are you up for a little visit?” He just blinks at me and I think maybe I am a little too quiet so I repeat myself.
He shakes his head. “No habla ingles.” Two in a row? That other nurse mentioned the iPad translator. But I have never really used one, I don’t know how to get one and doesn’t this guy look like he wants to go back to sleep?
He looks up from his pillow and says again more forcefully, “No habla ingles!” He looks at me expectantly.
I actually know a few words of Spanish but for some unknown reason I panic. Here is the problem with panic: it crowds out every useful, pertinent thought in your brain. Panic is like a barking Weimaraner in a room full of cats. The only ones that stick around are either sick or crazy. In my case, only the crazy ones remain.
My hands now in a pray pose, I slowly back out of the room, bowing and say, “Asiento no disponible.” He looks totally confused. Why wouldn’t he be? Seat closed. It is the COVID restriction sign I read every morning on the Metro bus. I do not know why I am bowing.
The correct thing to do is find his nurse—or any nurse—and ask them to show me how to use the iPad to get an interpreter. But I am too flummoxed to do that. I escape to the little hole which is our office. I write in the log that I visited and he spoke only Spanish, indicated he would like to sleep and that Spiritual Care will continue to follow.
“You’re not going to leave it like that, are you?” My chaplain colleague is aghast. “You’ve got to go back with a translator. You’ve got to do right by him.”
I am now more embarrassed and ashamed than when I’d told the patient, “Seat closed.” Of course my colleague is right. Even worse, he’s younger than me. I’ve been a chaplain longer than he’s been alive.
I am the bad priest who passed by the beat-up traveler on the road leaving him for the good Samaritan. He wouldn’t have been intimidated by an iPad.
My colleague leaves the office and I call down to the floor but by now, the patient has been taken to surgery. At least I didn’t say, “Cubrebocas requerido.” “Masks are required.” I feel like I should be sitting in the corner wearing a chaplain dunce cap. I finish writing his chart note when the phone rings. It is a call from an enthusiastic medical student who wants to make two referrals on the same floor! Huzzah! Personal referrals are the best. My day is improving.
“We have this elderly lady who is so-o-o-o lonely. She sits in her chair all day staring at the ground. I know she would lo-o-ove a visit from you. And she’s Methodist!” He is so pleased to give me this information. “Oh, she does have a bit of dementia.” I am fine with that. After all I just told a patient, “Seat closed,” when there wasn’t a chair in sight.
He sparkles on. “And you’ll just love this other lady! She’s a COVID survivor from Montana. She’s Greek Orthodox!” This is promising. If nothing else we can talk about Greece or Greek food or Greek icons.
I decide to go for the Greek first. I’ll call her “Sophia.” As I am about to enter her room, a student nurse approaches me and asks, “Do you mind if stay? I’ve never seen a chaplain visit.”
“Oh, you’re welcome to stay! And if you’re comfortable, you can stay and pray with us.”
“Yes, I’d like that very much.” I am excited. It’s good to show budding medical staff how professional chaplains operate.
Sophia sits on the side of her bed, staring out the window at the Cascades. The student stands obediently next to me, her hands behind her back. I sit down in a chair opposite the woman who has the darkest brown eyes I’ve ever seen in my life. There are like black buttons.
“Hi, I’m Debra from Spiritual Care.” I am cheerful. I am smiling. I am radiating Divine Light.
It takes her a moment to tear her eyes off the window but she finally looks at me and with curled lips says, “I ask for an Orthodox priest and they give me Spiritual Care.” She spits out the words “spiritual,” and “care” as if she’s just slurped a bad clam.
I am not Divine Light. I am Spam substituting for filet mignon. The difference is vast. There is dead silence and the student nurse looks up at the ceiling.
I remember what happened just a short time before so I take a deep breath so as not to panic. “You’ve been here a long time. What’s been the hardest thing for you?” This is a Standard Chaplain Question.
It’s as if there is a thought bubble over Sophia’s head and in blinking Broadway lights is the word, “Idiot.” She narrows her eyes. “I miss my family,” she snarls.
“Oh, of course. COVID restrictions.” Then I’m off babbling about COVID and how hard it is on everyone and I ask her about her family and the Orthodox community and how I had a Greek Orthodox professor in seminary and has she been to Greece? But she won’t answer and continues to stare past me out the window. Thank God I’m wearing a mask and no one can see me bite my bottom lip to stop myself from talking. I let silence settle around us. The student nurse picks at her cuticles.
Finally Sophia says, “I pray every day that I don’t cry.” Oh, here is something I can work with!
“You know, it’s okay to cry,” I say. “We feel our feelings and then we give them a voice. And sometimes our feelings are too deep for words and that’s what tears are for. If we don’t give them a voice they will just eat us from the inside out.” The student nurse nods her head. Then I say, “Even Jesus wept. Remember that? When his friend Lazarus died he wept.
Sophia gets a faraway look in her eyes and says, “I never saw that before.”
Well, there we go! I am so happy I helped her have this spiritual insight. New realization comes from Scripture all the time. God is still speaking! I smile and say, “Yes! Even Jesus wept.”
Then raises her arm and points at the window behind me and says again, “I never saw that before.” I turn around and there opening wide, like the giant maw of a roaring ogre, is the Montlake bridge.
I can’t even look at the student nurse. I give a weak little laugh. “Yes,” I say. “That’s the Montlake bridge going up. And you’ve—you’ve never seen that before.”
“No,” she says. “All these months I’ve been here and I’ve never seen that.”
Sometimes you just have to cut your losses and leave. I ask if she wants me to pray before I leave. She reluctantly accepts and I pray what I’m sure she thinks is a crappy Spam prayer.
I am very glad I’ve saved the elderly lady for last because clearly Sophia will be the Most Humiliating Patient Experience of the Day. How could I not hear the Holy Spirit falling over herself laughing?
I will call this elderly lady “Alta.” She is sitting up in bed and when I introduce myself she opens one eye. “I have pneumonia,” she barks. “Doctor’s mistake that’s the reason.” She opens both eyes. “What do you want?”
My first thought was, What I want is the name of that medical student who made these referrals. My second thought is sheer gratitude that no one else is in the room. My third thought is, “She’s Methodist!”
“So do you belong to a Methodist church in Seattle?”
“I have pneumonia!”
“I know that must be scary. Are you feeling better?”
“My husband died six years ago. My son owns a company here in Washington. A very big company. Very big. He’s going to be famous.”
“He died six years ago!”
“I’m sorry. I thought that was your husband who died.”
“Six years ago.” It goes on like this for a while until finally she announces, “I have to pee.”
I look around. There is a commode over by the sink. “Do you need the commode?”
“I need to be tickled with a feather!”
Okay, I am mystified. I think, “Oh, perhaps she has a Foley catheter.” My mental equation is, Urge To Pee + Tickly Feather Sensation = Foley Catheter. So I ask, “Do you have a catheter in your bladder?”
“Yes,” she says.
“Then you can just pee.”
“Oh, yes. I can never get used to that.”
After a moment, a look of relief crosses her face. We pray together and I stand up to leave. I notice there is no urine bag on my side of the bed, so as I am hanging up the chair I look on the other side. There is no urine bag there either. She does not have a urinary catheter in place.
“You hung up the chair.”
“Yes, I’m leaving now.”
She pats the bed. “You can sit here and talk to me.”
I look at her straight in the eye and say, “Asiento no disponible.” Then I reach over and ring her call button. When the nurse arrives I arrange my face in what I hope is a look of welcoming innocence. Thank God that cubrebocas requerido.