EOL Takes on New Meaning!

 

It is a busy week and I am trying unsuccessfully to control not only my part but how others interact with me. As I planned the remainder of my day on Wednesday at noon I received a text that alerted me to an “End of Life” situation that I would be asked to address when I arrived at my second “job”. Life support was to be removed late morning and I was asked to visit with the family as soon as practical. Confident that I would find a peer, Chaplain’s assistant, I entered the hospital confident that I would receive counsel when I arrived at the Chaplain’s office. Chaplain Craig was on vacation and as it turned out, I was it! Armed with the strong belief that God never gives us anything we can’t handle together I headed out into the miles of corridors that make up Eisenhower Medical Center.

Not far from our office and halfway to the chapel I was met by the Director of Volunteer Services and a volunteer who was clearly distressed. Thankful to have caught me they explained that there was a family in the chapel who were in a great deal of distress over the anticipated loss of a member of their family. Well, that’s convenient I thought, it saves me from a visit to the Intensive Care Unit (ICU). ( I usually stop at the chapel on my way out to the floors to enter into prayer for all those in the hospital and especially for those whom I will meet on that particular day.) As I entered the chapel it was clear that the two adults were the most traumatized, one in tears is Hispanic and trying to comfort the second young female who is very distressed, wailing and also trying to comfort an infant in a portable car seat. There were two young children, clearly members of the family who were entertaining themselves on an I Pad or similar device. It became rather clear that all I could do was to pray for this family and their loved one as they were incapable of entering into prayer with me. God understands!

It was going to be a difficult day.

I then ventured out doing my best to be confident the Holy Spirit would help me through whatever He had in mind for the remainder of my visits. After visiting with several patients with varying faith backgrounds and somewhat up lifted by relative acceptance for the most part I arrived at the ICU and realized I should stop by to see how the “End of Life” (EOL) patient was faring. The nurse in ICU greeted me and expressed appreciation for the fact that I had come by and after a brief pass down it became apparent there were actually two EOL patients in ICU. The original patient that I had received a request to see was still awaiting my visit or at least his family was waiting patiently. Life support had been discontinued and death was imminent according to the nurse who also asked that I gown up and take precautions as the patient was in limited isolation.

I entered the patient’s room and immediately put on gown and gloves. (It is so hard to feel the power of personal contact when those gloves interfere.) I introduced myself to the family and expressed my condolences for the situation. We chatted briefly and the wife identified as being Baptist along with her husband and their daughter was Methodist. I offered prayer and they immediately offered me their gloved hands as we entered into silence and then spontaneous prayer as the Spirit moved me. I felt blessed to be allowed to be with them at that moment and to pray and they were clearly appreciative. We concluded our prayers and I excused myself to leave them for their vigil.

As I exited ICU I suddenly realized that in my anxiety over the situation I had lost an important opportunity during prayer. I had prayed for the patient, the family, the doctors and nurses. I had asked God to prepare a place for the patient … but I never prayed with the patient! Initially I was devastated that I had not really engaged the patient in prayer. Yes, he was comatose but that didn’t mean that he couldn’t hear or feel our prayers, spoken and silent! The Holy Spirit was right there and lifted me up to realize I had just learned a very important Pastoral Lesson – one I shall never forget.

In later consultation with the Chaplain he recommended always taking a prayer book of some kind along as a guide especially for those “special” opportunities. Using a liturgy that has been well thought through in advance will make the experience much more Pastoral directed. Spontaneous prayer can be used to supplement whatever accepted liturgy we may use. I now carry Ministry with the Sick (Church Publishing Incorporated) with me all day to be prepared. It is a great resource for those who visit the sick in any capacity.

This work is so fulfilling and uplifting and yet I am still only a rookie at being a Chaplain’s Assistant. I have never failed to experience the presence of the Holy Spirit at some point(s) during my days at the hospital. What a marvelous gift – even at a bedside in an End of Life ( as we know it ) situation!

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Weary feet from delivering The Spirit

The desert winds blew hard, unfurling the huge flag at the entrance to Eisenhower Medical Center in Rancho Mirage and as I walked through the main entrance for the first time on Wednesday, May 14th with my new badge identifying me as “Chaplain’s Assistant” I was struck immediately by the sense of anxiety surrounding a new challenge that was heightened by the size and reputation of this particular institution. Not only does it bear the name of an important American hero and president, it has also served many famous individuals. The anxiety over the undertaking as a volunteer Chaplain’s Assistant was real and fed in part by the fear of meeting many folks for the first time who already dedicate many hours to serving as spiritual “messengers” to those who are in pain and going through a difficult time. This was brought home when the Director of the Volunteers informed a group of new folks that they were joining a hospital volunteer corps that had served over five million hours since the hospital opened in 1971.

Eisenhower Medical Center is a large and daunting facility with over 475 beds with a well-regarded Emergency Department, separate cancer treatment facility and medical offices located on the same campus. It is the stated objective of the Chaplaincy Services Department that every patient will be visited at least once by a member of our volunteer staff to affirm religious affiliation, if any, and attempt to determine the spiritual needs of those patients. There are about 12 volunteers working out of the Chaplain’s office during the Monday to Friday weekday visitation schedule. The Chaplain is Fr. Donald Craig, a Roman Catholic priest with excellent pastoral care skills and a determination to maintain a highly regarded Chaplaincy Department.

Anxiety and the resultant fear I was soon to learn were unfounded. Meetings with the chaplain and over eight hours of bedside visits with other chaplain’s assistants gave me a sense of confidence that the ministry of pastoral care, though challenging, is simple as long as we invite the Holy Spirit into the process. As a diaconal postulant should I find this all that surprising? Absolutely not, but occasionally I still allow anxiety surrounding the unknown to open the door to the fear that becomes a challenge to my faith.

Two particular thoughts come to mind after over 30 hours of visiting with patients and sharing the incredible experience of realizing the truth in the words, “Whenever two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” (Matthew 18:20) The acknowledgment of a patient of their joy in seeing you as evidenced by a smile when you identify as being part of the chaplain’s staff or the uplifting experience of seeing tears following prayer, tears of comfort not of pain. The first thought is to acknowledge the value of initial prayer with other chaplain’s assistants before starting out on our rounds and the powerful reminder of the presence of the Holy Spirit in the room with the patient as I hesitate for a brief moment to allow the Holy Spirit enters the room before I do. This is a technique that I find very helpful not only in the hospital setting but I have found it also reinforcing at any time that I may been entering someone else’s space. Preparation, preparation, preparation! In that moment of hesitation I feel uplifted and sense that it changes my attitude even to the extent of putting a smile on my face. (I acknowledge my belief that the Spirit is present even before I arrive at the hospital that day.)

The second thought has to deal with active listening, a topic we studied this year in the School for Ministry. The role of the chaplain’s assistant though not one of a counselor but as a provider of pastoral care requires fine-tuning active listening skills. The patient who is clearly uncomfortable due to pain or the patient struggling with anxiety over a pending diagnosis creating their discomfort quite often is anxious to share some element of their personal life that may or may not be related directly to their medical condition and may in fact reflect important information about where they are in their spiritual journey. It is suggested that as an active listener we focus on content and feelings as we listen to the patient’s “story” and when we respond that we do so in such a way that it reflects on that content and their feelings. The challenge at this point is to not attempt to weave in your own content or your own personal feelings!

A particular personal experience has reinforced my decision not only to do this particular summer education project but also my response to the call to become a Deacon. John had been a patient in the hospital for five days but for numerous reasons no one from the chaplain’s office and had the opportunity to meet with him one-on-one. I was met with a smile on his face I entered his room and introduced myself as a chaplain’s assistant and realized that I was meeting with someone who was close in age to me and someone who is truly happy to see me. The early part of our conversation included a chat regarding the weather, Memorial Day and the beautiful American flag being displayed in full thanks to the wind.

John had identified as Christian upon admission and he volunteered that he was a Veteran of the war in Vietnam. I then identified as a Vietnam Veteran as well. I then offered to pray with John as I do with any patient who is interested. John and I prayed prayers of gratitude, petitions for healing and prayers for the doctors and nurses. Yes, John prayed including a prayer of gratitude for my service as a chaplain. Afterward John shared with me that he was a retired pastor and Navy chaplain who had served as a hospital chaplain during his career. As he shared this tears came to his eyes as he expressed additional gratitude for my service as a chaplain and in the church.

For some this may seem just another brief moment in time where two men made a connection and shared just as Jesus would have us share acknowledging his presence and his love. For John and me this was something greater and a moment that we shall both cherish.