Swearing at the Chaplains

I have a hard time connecting with our hospital chaplains.  Something about their collective personalities, I guess.  I’m inclined to say that they’re just generally weird but I suppose that would be arrogant.  In effect, I’m saying they’re strange and I’m normal.

But they are.


I can’t shake the feeling that the chaplains are working in my hospital because they’re winding down a career – the semi-retirement of the Godly set.  I often catch myself thinking they’d be on the proverbial golf course if they could make the numbers work.

I can never find them when I need them.  I never hear my patients asking for them or expressing gratitude that the chaplain stopped by.  They don’t help with cases and in my 2+ years in this hospital, I’ve never worked with one chaplain on any case – dire or otherwise.  I’ve gotten to know janitors, administrators, transporters, most of the switchboard operators, librarians, at least a sampling of nurses on every floor and virtually every nurse in OB.  I know most of the social workers, some of the PT guys, a couple of dietary folks, two coffee ladies, the head IV therapy nurse, the wound care people, some of the security guards and the guy who heads up the hospitality service.  Heck, I even know the ladies in the post office.

But I don’t know a single chaplain.  Not one.  They drift through the hospital like druids floating around looking for sacred mushrooms to grind into some acrid concoction of God, but they sure don’t talk to me.  Given that when working in the hospital, I’m seeing people at death’s door every day, I can say that if they’re ushering people into the heavenly realms, they’re doing it when I’m not looking.  More than once, I’ve wondered if they’re out back smoking the nargila and waiting for their retirement to kick in.

The other day I had a patient ask for her pastor to visit her.  We were discussing that the end of her life was near; it was time to consider switching from care for cure, to care for comfort.  In other words, it was time to pull out the catheters.  This was an emotional discussion for both of us, as we’d made an early connection with each other and I really enjoyed her acerbic wit coupled with a clear love for the act of living.

“Before we start pulling out tubes, I need to pray with my pastor,” She told me, between gasps.  “I’m scared to make this decision alone and without some prayer first.  His name is Pastor Jarrod and he’s with the Community Grace Church downtown.  Please find him.”

You can imagine that this sort of plea wasn’t taken lightly.  If you really think about what it might be like for you to die, GENUINELY mull the idea of your own demise around in your head for awhile, I think you’ll find the idea a bit unsettling.  Most humans innately fear the unknown, and even if you have an enormous amount of faith that you are to be saved from the ill-effects of death, crossing the actual threshold should stir up at least a little consternation.

So, I moved quickly out of her room and attempted to contact the pastor of my patient.  After 3 or 4 phone calls, I’m successful only at leaving messages at various destinations.  Then I remember, “Hey!  We have a chaplaincy here!  I’ll just call one of them.  They can spend some time with her, pray with her, encourage her and fill the void until her pastor gets here,” I figure reasonably.

I stop to think for a moment and realize I have no idea how to even call for a chaplain.  This is understandable, given how infrequently we even use their services.  So I look them up.  Calling their office in the dead of the business day leads to a voice mail.  They offer an “Emergency Line”.  I call that.  Voice mail.  I page overhead.  No answer.  I leave my cell phone number, pager number and numerous voice messages.  No return call.

An hour later, I get word that my patient is exhibiting agonal breathing.  She has reached the end, and I failed to bring a pastor or chaplain to her side.

“Godd*&m, f&c$ing chaplains!”  I scream to myself, “I can’t envision a more worthless excuse for spending hospital money.  What the hell do these people even do?!”

So, the title of this blog is misleading.  I didn’t swear at chaplains, thank God (no pun intended).  I swore at the idea of chaplains.  They could play such a huge role in the lives of people in our hospital, but from my perspective, they don’t do anything of the sort.  It could be that we’ve just been ships passing in the night for all these years.  But why do I see the maintenance supervisor about every other day, saying hi to him and laughing about how I messed up his wax floors last year, but I couldn’t find one of our drifty druids if someone’s life depended on it?

Turns out this lady’s personal pastor did get my voice message and rather than waste time calling me back, he made a bee-line to the hospital.  He held her shaking, fearful hands and prayed deeply and intently with her.  He reminded her that according to her Christian beliefs, she has power over the eternal effects of death as well as the fear of death itself.  He reiterated that Jesus has wrapped her soul in love and freedom from darkness.

Shortly after this prayer, he told me later, my patient sighed peacefully, looked out the window and whispered, “Lord, I’m ready.  Take me home.”  And then she died, her face still and peaceful;  probably much like she first looked when she was a newborn baby, asleep in her crib.

Perhpas I’m being too critical of the hosptial chaplaincy and one day will wish to change my assesment of them.  But for today, as my mind and heart still reel from the loss of such a beautiful person who almost faced the end of her days in needless fear, our chaplains leave a lot to be desired.

Power Of Prayer

My favorite room in the entire hospital is the chapel. For a thousand reasons, many I’m sure you can guess or innately understand, I bathe myself in the serenity of the chapel as often as I can.

I was raised a Protestant Evangelical Christian (only recently learned this loong definitive categorization of my religion). People from my walk of faith believe in prayer. It’s a big deal. My mom is a self-entitled “prayer warrior” (the ‘war’ is with Satan and his demonic hosts). Her mother before her is regarded by all in the family also as a prayer warrior…but Yoda-level. My mom remains at Skywalker speed thus far.

My own place in this spiritual maelstrom is decidedly less interesting or remarkable. My problem is that I can’t figure out what I think prayer even does. C.S. Lewis said that prayer doesn’t change God…it changes us. But there are clear examples in the Bible where the faithful prayed to God in a clear attempt to change His mind. There are examples where human devotion and prayer did in fact change God’s mind.

Aside from the fact that I can’t figure out what prayer does, I still do it all the time. Daily. Through words whispered in the dancing light of our hospital’s chapel or written contemplatively in my journal. So, I must think it does something. What I do NOT believe is that is cures a kid of diabetes. So, in reading about a couple from my neck of the woods that recently let their kid die of ketoacidosis because they didn’t want traditional medical care, and instead only wanted to pray for her, I find myself angry at them. I can’t relate to them or find much validity in their thinking. Read the sad article here.

girl.jpgBut my position isn’t very theologically very sound, is it? I pray regularly, but if my daughter needs insulin, I wouldn’t dream of treating her with mere chants in a chapel. Yet I suppose that if I really believed in the power of prayer, I would have the faith of this girl’s parents; believing that her death is God’s will and for some greater good that I can’t see.

Frankly, I’ll never believe that, even if it means I don’t believe in prayer. Or God. I’ll fight to save my kids with prayer, and insulin, and radiation, and hyperbaric chambers if I have to. The great conundrum in the arguments for God’s existence is that the definition of him is incompatible with the world around us. The commonest definition of God is a being that is all-powerful, all-loving, and all-knowing. But when a beautiful 11-year old girl dies because her parents are on their knees begging God to save her instead of simply giving her insulin, at least one of those three elements of God’s being seem like they must be impossible. Either God didn’t know what was happening, didn’t care, or couldn’t do anything to stop it. The problem of evil is the Christian apologist’s greatest stumbling block. Evil like this – and endless other examples – is frankly impossible for believers to explain. Mixed up in all this are the brambles of free choice – i.e., if there’s a deer in the road, do you pray about it or hit the brakes?

And that’s just it…I believe the prayer should be mixed with insulin.  Neither should be separated; it took God-given brains to discover exogenous insulin in the first place.  I know there’s evil in the world, and that it contradicts the definition of the God I believe in.  I can’t explain this logical fallacy.  But prayer and action frequently disarm suffering, sometimes in surprising ways…and I can’t explain this either.