Tiny Hands

Every day, I watch the strong, gentle hands of nurses adjusting wires, checking vitals. They help the nervous hands of parents hold and feed tiny new ones, becoming more confident as the days pass.

But always, it is the tiniest hands that amaze me. Wiggling in the air, tucked under cheeks, moving in what would have been an in-utero flutter. TheirĀ bodies are not developed enough to leave the hospital, but theirĀ hands can already get them into trouble as they pull at feeding tubes or try to “help” change a diaper.

Premature babies look fragile and sometimes their hands are covered with IV tubes. I once asked my father, a pediatrician, if it was depressing to work with these smallest of patients who are connected to wires and tubes to help them reach developmental benchmarks that will allow them to thrive. He told me what every nurse and doctor has repeated to me since: No! Babies are stronger than you think, even (maybe especially) premature babies. They don’t know how to do anything but grow and live, so that is what they try to do. Watching their hands, you know it is true. These hands are forever reaching out to grasp childhood.

Buzzy Bees

I woke up this morning with the sore throat that has been making the rounds in my house. Allergies? Cold? No idea. Then, as I was driving my daughter to another soggy day at camp, I realized I forgot to put my reading glasses in my brief case. Argh! This was not a good start to the day.

They say every cloud has a silver lining. And while I haven’t seen anything very shiny in the omnipresent clouds we’ve had this summer, there turned out to be a couple of bright spots to the clouds in my day.

I didn’t have time to get my glasses from home – so I had to get new ones. Had too. Poor me! My forgetfulness got me a whole new look.

 

Off I went to work with my snazzy new glasses. Meeting, rounds, …then found out that my sore throat was going to keep me out of NICU. No seeing babies today! Boooo!

I was about to sulk for the rest of the day when things got really adorable. And crafty. Because I got to spend my afternoon making these buzzy bee cards to leave with NICU families. Silver linings like this will last me (maybe) two days. After that, this sore throat better say adios and let me get back to work.

The snarky chaplain

This first full week of being a hospital chaplain has been emotional, inspiring, and exhausting. If only more of my patients could appreciate this. I am here for you, people! Trying to learn something here!!! I am growing impatient with my patients.

By Friday, I realized that most of the people who let me pray with for them are premature babies. Because they can’t say, “no thank you.” Before they are born, their parents are fine with a polite smile and a nod. Silently they say, “nice to see you, but I’m getting out of here soon and can’t think about anything else.”

There are some people who do like to talk. But sometimes they are asleep or getting medical care when I stop by. Can we work on this?!

Why do I feel like this is part of the lesson for my summer…

Water for the Soul

Tonight there is more rain in our city and it has been beating down on the windows of the hospital where I am chaplain for the night. Families are waiting for loved ones to die. Or for emergency surgery. Or they are relieved to hear a baby will survive. While the sky weeps, these families shed tears – of grief, of worry, of joy.

In a parched land, water is longed for. Once the ground is soaked, water begins to rush across earth and stone, reshaping the landscape and making us wish it would stop. And yet, when the water recedes we are left with something new. Tears are the same – they can be necessary and unwelcome, allowing us to feel both relieved and exposed, connected and vulnerable. Like flood waters, tears can form us. They carve rivulets across our souls to remind us that love was there.

The New Rules

These are the new rules that will help me survive CPE this summer:

Pacing: I have been spoiled, I know. Before this summer, I worked mostly from home at my own pace. Took breaks whenever I pleased. Spent most of the day sitting at a computer. Now I am on my feet most of the day, have set office hours, and hardly any time for breaks. How do people who work in offices get their laundry done?! I start every day exhausted and end every day revved up from the encounters I’ve had. To make it through, I’m going to have to use my non-work time wisely. On the other hand, my legs have never seen so many stairs in a single day. That’s good, right?

Eating: See above. I used to eat whatever I wanted whenever I was hungry. Now, I pack a lunch and hope not to forget my travel mug for routine caffeine reinforcement. Some of you will remind me that I could eat at the hospital cafeteria. Go ahead and eat there if you want, I will not be dining there very often – one visit taught me that. On the other hand, every Wednesday is Hot Cookie Day! Cookies as big as my face.

Don’t be afraid to be stupid: This gig is so completely new to me. Everything about it, from the actual patient visits to the technology. I required a remedial lesson in using my pager today. And it isn’t even that complicated. There is no time to be proud in this job, so I hope people can put up with lots of repetition and forgetfulness on my part until things become routine.

Use on-call time wisely: I will have my first overnight on-call this week. (Perhaps even as you are reading this post?) That means spending the entire night (after a full day of work) at the hospital answering calls to emergencies – from 4 hospitals, actually. My colleagues and I have been reminded over and over not to make extra work for ourselves because things actually do happen in the middle of the night and we need to have the energy to handle them. Does catching up on missed episodes of The Daily Show use too much or too little energy? I will let you know, because that is how I plan to use my time in the sleep room. Until I crash from exhaustion. Anyone who knows me well knows that I fear lack of sleep more than just about anything else.

Demise

Fetal demise. It doesn’t sound very nice and it isn’t. To know that your longed-for baby will be stillborn, that you have to go through labor and delivery with no happy outcome, that family is gathered outside your room waiting to console you…which will only affirm your deep sorrow.

And yet…in the midst of this sorrow there is love. There is a community gathered to grieve together. The true meaning of compassion is suffering with and that is what we do when we stay by the side of those who endure loss. We can’t make their pain go away. And ignoring it negates the very real agony another feels. But sitting alongside…there is nothing more affirming.

A blessing helps. A prayer helps. But really, it is the cohesion of family and friends that carry any of us through. Our presence is a reminder that God is with us in the midst of loss and pain – not just for the pretty parts, but the hardest, ugliest, cruelest parts. It is through these relationships to the divine and the human that endings are transformed. Into hope. Into connections. Into the future. Into affirmation that we are made for each other, to suffer and love together.

For any person who experiences a loss too soon, or any loss at all, the best any of us can offer is to sit and suffer with them. There is no way around grief, only through it. And although there are as many “right” ways to mourn as there are people, it is the people who mourn with us that make it possible for us to emerge from the other side. This summer, I am a sitter. One who will suffer with. But I am a stranger, and really this sitting and being is is a path open to any of us.

Beginnings and Endings

Earlier this week, I dropped my daughter off at camp and asked for a hug. “I won’t see you again until tomorrow morning,” I reminded her. She asked if I was going to be at the hospital and I said yes, I had a late night shadowing a chaplain on-call – learning the ropes.

“Oooo! Can you take pictures of dead people!”

Well, no. For her, my summer of CPE involves a completely unknown world, but she’s still her silly 7-year-old self about it.

Today, the morning after a quiet on-call, I experienced both ends of life, but in reverse order. First thing this morning, an unexpected death. Then, later in the day, a tour through the NICU (neonatal intensive care) where the babies are not only newborns, but tiny, fragile premature babies.

I can’t really write about who I saw or what we talked about – not only because it is against policy to do it, but also because these are some of the most intimate events in the life of individuals and families – and I need to honor that. And yet I want to process what I have experienced, talk about it, write about it. And it seems kind of strange to use the occasion of another family’s crisis to reflect only on myself…

What I can say is that being present for these families is a huge privilege and a gift. Others have been with my family at such times when I could not, and I love the thought that I am, in a small way, paying forward their kindness. And in some ways, I felt a little connection to those to whom I was ministering. Maybe their family names were the same as those on my regular prayer list. Or their sense of vulnerability echoed my own experiences. I’ve had family in ICU and I’ve worried about a longed-for child. I’ve had dear ones caught in these moments that feel out of time and place.

Life can turn so quickly from familiar to strange, from comfortable to difficult. None of us were meant to walk through those changes alone, we were created to go through them together. This summer, for a very short time, I’ll get to be one of the people who can tag along for the journey when people feel like they’ve been left alone or set adrift. I hope at some point they know what a blessing they are to me.

Journaling CPE

Usually, I use this blog to post short reflections on ideas about which I have overthought. Maybe a photo or two, a couple of pithy sentences. But this summer, because I am submerged into a completely new situation, I am feeling the need to make it a kind of journal as well. Still overthought, so you don’t have to.

I am one and a half weeks into my CPE internship and today saw my first patients. Because of the way these things work, I can’t really write about any particular encounters, but it is impossible to go thru the days and not feel like putting a lot of the experiences into words.

What I can say is that, although the hospital seems awfully quiet tonight, there are some people here surrounded by family and friends, some who are loved and supported from afar, and still others who are all alone. There are people who have all the anxiety you’d expect on the night before surgery, and others who are infectiously optimistic in the face of difficulty.

In exactly one week, I’ll be roaming these halls at night for my first solo on-call. I will probably be as anxious as a pre-op patient. I hope I have some of that infectious optimism, as well. I hope if you are reading this you’ll be sending some love and support from afar!

Drinking from a firehose

Lots of people told me the first week of CPE* was like drinking from a firehose – and they were right. That metaphor might even be an understatement. This first week has aimed a torrent of information and anxiety into my brain. The first sip was hospital orientation – compliance, safety, security, required webinars, and, because it is a hospital system, proper hand washing. Next, a gulp of the themes specific to chaplaincy – family systems, theological reflection, cultural humility, pastoral identity, authority…And then I was doused with the necessary tasks related to records and forms, user names and passwords, policies and procedures.

The topic that feels most like it’ll drown me is death and dying – which will be a major theme for my summer. I knew this was part of the experience, but it still holds a great deal of mystery and anxiety for me. Being with people at the moment or shortly after a death is not an experience I have ever had. In addition to the charged emotion of it, there is the whole “business” of dying that we add in the modern era – gathering information and filling out forms.

If facing death raises anxiety for me, the thought of lost sleep during overnight on-call brings a deluge of terror! As an Olympic level sleeper and napper, I worry about the 2 a.m. page – but it will come – along with pages at all other hours of the day and night. This is why we are there, to respond to needs as they arise, not on a schedule.

To survive the flood of anxiety and newness, I have some tools, some life rafts to grab onto. I have a great group of colleagues – some are newbies like me and others are experienced. Throughout the summer, we’ll be reflecting and praying together about what we are learning and how to do it better. (Also, I wouldn’t make it through at all without comfortable shoes. And sweaters with pockets.) And while the prospect of the next ten weeks is daunting, it is only ten weeks – at the end, I’ll move on to another phase of my formation. But with a priceless experience. What feels like drinking from a firehose today will, by summer’s end, have given me just a taste of the life ahead of me.

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*CPE, for the uninitiated, stands for Clinical Pastoral Education, a hospital chaplaincy internship that is required for a lot of people on the path to ordained ministry. It is one of the best ways to learn how to provide pastoral care for people in their greatest times of crisis and vulnerability. And also to experience how that work does not fit your preferred time schedule.