Sheer dumb luck

I have just finished my overnight (16 hour) on-call, had my post-call nap and shower and am beginning to feel human again. For those of you who have never worked on-call, I like to describe it as having jet lag once a week. You know the disruption in your sleep is coming. You eat carefully, watch your caffeine and hydrate. And then, you just do it. Add to the sleep disruption the variety of challenges a chaplain faces, and it can be a very long night. But last night, it was what started my shift that stayed with me all night.

My commute into work is never boring, that’s for certain. Winding my way from the Montgomery County suburbs to the expressways and gridlock of the District of Columbia means that I deal with all kinds of drivers: crazy cabbies, eat-my-exhaust buses, lost tourists and cranky commuters. I tend to turn up the radio and sing along, always listening for anything “interesting” on the traffic reports that will gum up my commute.

Yesterday, I got to work about 5 minutes early. The traffic was light and I hit a lot of green lights. I found a close-in parking space in the most convenient garage. All of these factors meant that I was cruising down “I” Street earlier than usual. I didn’t give it a second thought until I crossed the street towards the hospital after parking my car and I saw this:

Holy. Cow.
Holy. Cow.

Yes. Five minutes after I had sat in traffic, at that very light, next to the (now crushed) silver BMW, a tree toppled over across 6 lanes of traffic. A large, heavy tree. At first I laughed. Then I did what any decent city dweller would do: I snapped a picture. 🙂 Then I texted it to my family with a joke: “Hey, look where I DIDN’T park the car today!”

Before I went into work, I stopped for a moment to take in the scene, and met up with a co-worker who saw the tree topple. He shook his head and told me that there wasn’t a burst of wind, there was just a sudden “CRACKKKKK” noise. Then the tree fell with a loud thump on the car. And it fell in between a cab and a commuter van! No one was hurt. Pretty amazing. Yes, us city folk get all excited about a fallen tree. We had a laugh or two and I went on my way. But then I was a bit shaken.

Timing is everything I mused to myself on the way up to my office. I thought about the people in Boston injured at the Marathon. I thought about random accidents on the Metro, or on planes. Sometimes you decide to stand on the other side of the street. Sometimes your baby gets cranky and you leave early. Sometimes you miss a train or a traffic light, and there’s a good reason. And sometimes, it’s just how things work out.

I thought about it as I met with patients and families, talked to staff, encouraged the EMTs, joked with the police officers. I considered the strangeness of life and how it is so fluid, so unpredictable. I reflected on what one of my patients once commented: “Well, I didn’t plan on getting in an accident today… but I did!” That bit of insight stuck with me, and came back to me as I reflected on a tree falling over on a city street. It became an interesting object lesson as I looked out an ICU window with a family member and talked about the strange circumstances we sometimes find ourselves living through:


I don’t blame God for a tree falling over. Neither is it some kind of cosmic karma that the world hates people who buy expensive foreign cars. And though I enjoy scifi, I don’t see trees as sentient beings…

Sometimes it is a function of, as Minerva McDonougal put it in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, “sheer dumb luck.”

I’m good with that.

Outside the Trauma Room

IMG_2041When 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.

An Angel – made by my sister

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.