My last overnight on call…
I have mentioned a number of times in this blog that during the first half of 2012, I completed a unit of CPE—Clinical Pastoral Education—at our local teaching hospital and trauma center. My experiences in that period of time changed my life in ways that I am still processing more than a decade later. I was an Extern, meaning that I was doing this work while still working my day job, participating in my chorus and chamber chorale, and trying to be a wife and dog mom. Fortunately, both my husband and my dog extended me a lot of grace and extra portions of love as I explored this alien educational landscape.
Part of the Extern experience (like the Residents) included spending overnights as the chaplain on call. These overnight stays exposed me to some of the most eye-opening, adrenaline-surging, sorrow-inducing, empathy-expanding moments of my entire life. I also saw some things that enraged me. I don’t share many details because of confidentiality, but in my notebook I recorded as much detail as I could in the time I had to write things down.
One incident from my last overnight stay haunts me.
I was paged to the room of a patient who had coded (gone into full cardiac arrest). The medical professionals who attend to cases such as this always amazed me. The efforts to resuscitate a patient who has gone into full arrest are extremely physical…chest compressions alone can be exhausting. I had witnessed numerous codes during my unit, and in every case, the patient was “brought back”. Heartbeats and respirations were restored, at least for a time.
Not this patient. He was not coming back. Young, handsome, full of potential…and gone.
The team members who had worked so hard to revive him had to acknowledge that their efforts were unsuccessful, and what should have “worked” just…didn’t. Time of death was called and recorded, which I had not witnessed in previous codes I had attended. It’s a solemn duty, and as the on call chaplain, I first attended to the team, offering what support I could. The next step was contacting family to come to the hospital, but letting the news of the death wait until their arrival.
I sat with the patient while family members were in transit, holding his hand, speaking and singing to him. Just being present. I’ve done this with members of my own family, other hospital patients, and patients at the hospice where I volunteered. I know that Scripture tells us, “Absent from the body, present with the Lord”. But I have never been sure exactly how immediate the change of address is. Perhaps it has been my imagination, but in these moments, I have sensed their floating souls, hovering in the spaces above us, and I’ve been reluctant to leave until I felt a sense of dissipation. Members of my family haven’t understood my need to see the newly departed off in this way. I think some of them have viewed me as a ghoul.
In my final meeting with my supervisor, I related this experience, including my time spent after the patient had died, and my other times sharing spaces with a newly-departed soul. I questioned why I’m like this, because most other people aren’t. Is something wrong with me, am I really a ghoul? He looked at me with a penetrating gaze and a warm smile, and told me that, while it is true that most people are indeed not “like this”, my desire to remain for a bit with a recently departed soul is, in truth, a very pastoral trait, and one that I should embrace. He told me that he was proud of my growth during the unit. That he was proud of ME.
My CPE supervisor is gone now, in Heaven with many others who poured goodness into my life, whether they did so over decades, months, or moments, like this final patient. My hope is that, when I go to be with them, I can find this one who refused to come back. I want to thank him for moments of goodness, the sacred, holy hovering of his soul that I was privileged to share.