When the trauma horn goes off, there’s a half-breath wait while everyone listens to the overhead announcement. Not every call involves the chaplain, necessarily. But there’s a good chance that, in a very short time, I will be busy. So I flip open my notebook and wait for the specifics.
My role is not the most important. In fact, many times I’m almost an after-thought. I’m there. Waiting. Available. Someone on the trauma team might look up and say, “Oh. Chaplain. There’s someone waiting in chairs.” And I sit with the family member or friend and can tell them… nothing. (They let me wear the white coat with the promise that I won’t try and diagnose anyone. If the moment is lighter, I’ll tell my waiting room companion, “I’m not a doctor and I don’t play one on TV.”)
No, most of the time, the people who rush to the Emergency Department are surgeons and scrub nurses, respiratory and radiology techs, and anesthesiologists. I follow, waiting until the initial rush of people and equipment clears the elevators. I wait around. A lot. Most of what I do is kind of like “crumb-sweeping.” I see what’s left over, who’s left behind, and I help out.
I’ve held IV bags. Gotten blankets from the warmer. Pushed a gurney. Monitored an exit. Fetched ice water. Found tissues. (The WORST tissues in the world, BTW, are in hospitals. Honestly. I had no idea you could box and sell sandpaper as tissues!) And I listen to very real, scared people as they face their fears.
More often than not, what I spend my time doing is tamping down the inevitable “What IFs”. Because in the waiting area, or outside the surgery suite, there’s very little you can do but wait. However, people need care. They wonder where the bathrooms are. Or how to get coffee. Or if I have a phone charger.
Sometimes the tasks are more difficult. Explaining about funeral homes. Organ and tissue donation. Holding the next-of-kin as they sob and sob. Try not to second-guess “what is taking so long.” Pray if they want prayers. Sing if they like hymns. Wait with them if they want company. Mostly, I listen.
It’s that last bit that is the hardest for me. I’m an extrovert and a talker. And chaplaincy has trained me to be a listener and a companion. I’m a deep-feeling person. And chaplaincy asks me to set my own feelings, fears and worries aside, whether from work or from life, and focus on the needs of others.
When I heard the news about the Boston Marathon bombing, I was momentarily stunned. Then I started praying. For the First Responders. For the surgeons, techs and nurses. For the people answering phones. For doctors and residents and interns and floor nurses and dietary staff and housekeeping who would be suddenly taxed with an influx of badly injured people. For my fellow chaplains who would be tired, exhausted and weary with a long night ahead of them. For the “disaster drill” that was no longer a drill. It was a cruel, shocking reality.
When I first started my chaplaincy training, a veteran chaplain calmly said as his pager went off, “Well, someone has just had their worst day. Ever.” And I realized, as I prayed for people I did not know by name in Boston, that a whole city had indeed experienced their worst day. Ever.
It puts things in perspective. The traffic that makes me growl, the crazed driver in a parking lot, the things that bring out my snark… they are small potatoes.
Almost every time when I’m at work I wear an angel, created by my sister, Lynn. It shows an angel, hands lifted in praise. (We jokingly call it “the touchdown angel”!) I love its simple design. And it is a tangible reminder to me of my family’s encouragement and love, and that every patient I care for is important — to their families and to God.
I try to focus on the little things of life, those thin spaces between life and death, where, if you look hard enough, there’s blessing. And courage. And joy. And grace. Lots of grace.
Outside the Trauma Room there’s lots of fears and worries. But God can handle them.
Thanks be to God.