I have an end-of-call routine that is very simple, and very comforting. I get a cup of coffee from St. Arbucks and a bowl of oatmeal from the hospital cafeteria. The oatmeal gives me enough oom-pah to make it home safely after being up most of the night. The coffee keeps me awake. Just barely.
This morning, as I did my usual routine, all of the morning’s calls handled and my charting completed, I headed down to grab my nominal breakfast and caffeine. I’m usually polite, but distant. It’s the only way I get in and out of the cafeteria in less than 15 minutes. (Here’s the honest truth: when I see a patient’s family member in the cafeteria, I try to think of how I can “look busy” rather than stop and talk to them. Here’s the reality: when I see the pain in their eyes, I usually stop and listen.)
This morning, it wasn’t the families who wanted my attention, but a couple of the homeless guys. “Hey doc,” said one, “why are YOU eating in here?” (The physicians have their own lounge with food provided. The rest of us pay for the privilege of hospital food.) My standard answer: “I’m on of the chaplains… How are you this morning?” (And they usually tell me.)
One man stood near me, talking about the Washington football team (who lost again…) and the weather (supposed to be a nasty icy mix today). As I scooped out my oatmeal, he fumbled with coins in his pocket. “How much is oatmeal? Dang…”
I turned to him and said, “Hey, do you want some oatmeal? My treat.” He looked at me suspiciously, but then scooped out his own bowl and added raisins.
As I paid for our breakfast and was turning to go, he politely invited me “to join us for breakfast.” There was a table with three other men, all eating their breakfast.
In all honesty, I wanted to run away. RUN AWAY RUN AWAY RUN AWAY!!!!!! But I smiled and said that I could sit with them for a few minutes. So I did. They insisted that “The Reverend” would pray for their food. And I did (short and sweet). As I sat there, enjoying my oatmeal and listening to them dissect the foibles of our hometown team, I realized that instead of inhaling my oatmeal and running to my next task, I actually sat and enjoyed it. It was warm and sweet. The coffee was satisfying. I left to answer a page, wishing them a warm and safe day (and knowing that they will probably spend a bit of time trying to strategize on how to do just that.) But it was a great start to my day.
Now, will my on call routine include “breakfast with the guys”? Perhaps. At the very least, they will get more than a nod and a swirl of a lab coat around the corner. Jojo, Matteah, Harve and Big Ed* taught me that a bowl of oatmeal or a plate of scrambled eggs and bacon, served up with a side of laughter, is a sweet thing on a cold morning.
A bowl of oatmeal… filled my heart with many, many small lessons in gratitude this morning.
Thanks be to God.
*not their real names.