Yesterday, I was the day on-call chaplain at the hospital. My role was to be the emergency contact person for the hospital. If someone called the information desk and asked to speak to a chaplain, I would be their man (or I would farm it off to whoever is the chaplain assigned to their floor). If someone requested a Roman Catholic priest, I would call the local church. I would check the pastoral care request book and phone line every few hours. And my beeper would be set, ready to scream bloody murder at a moment’s notice.
My day started out fairly normal. I visited many different families in the pediatric ICU and various patients on other floors. I had a few long conversations but most were very short and didn’t last very long. Most were fairly polite. Not many conversations felt very theological – even the conversation with a man about how can someone believe in the midst of a suffering world wasn’t really a conversation; the man just wanted to monolog for awhile. A colleague had been the on-call chaplain the day before and their beeper barely beeped. I was hoping for the same.
My summer CPE group and I gathered after lunch to go over some IT stuff. None of our logins to access electronic medical records were working (way to go IT). But two of the students were unable to gather due to deaths that had happened on their floors. And as I sat at the computer desk and my supervisor called IT, my beeper buzzed for the first time. A number flashed on it. I called the number right away and a nurse answered. I told her I was the emergency chaplain on call and was calling the nurse back. The nurse thanked me for the quick response and then spoke the magic words: “We have a patient who is actively dying.”
I found out the patient’s name and their location. The pastoral care department does not make a guarantee to fulfill all religious faith/denomination requests (except for Roman Catholic) but the family did request an Episcopalian. I am not an Episcopalian but one of my colleagues is. He asked to tag team on the call with me. We gathered our things and head to the elevator. On the elevator, we went over our game plan and he showed me where in the Book of Common Prayer the rites at the time of death were located. We entered the floor, met the head nurse, and put on gloves and a gown. We were on a bit of an adrenaline high. We pulled back the curtain, entered the room, and saw an elderly patient’s daughter crying.
It wasn’t easy being in that room but I was amazed at how calm I was. We spoke various prayers. We spent time with the daughter. I was amazed at seeing how the rites and prayers affected the daughter and the patient. Tears flowed but calmness had more face time. Pictures were shared. And I think I saw the moment when the patient truly died but the machines said otherwise. The daughter seemed thrilled that we were both “Episcopalians” and, in the midst of grief, I decided it was best not to correct her. After forty five minutes, we left and made a promise to return later to check up on them.
We went upstairs and gathered with the other students. We all decompressed and told our stories. Lots of death and other painful situations dominated the conversation. We talked about the weight we felt. We named our emotions. We tried to get out of problem solving mode and just be in the moment as a way to center ourselves. I talked about how calm I felt – a calm that surprised and shocked me. In the midst of death, I didn’t know how I would react. But the very words I read from the BCP – words I never saw until that day – seemed to have a soothing effect on me. Just preforming the rite seemed to help. I felt slightly energized and ready to go into that room later in the day.
My colleague and I met again before the end of the day. The game plan was modified so that the true Episcopalian would take the lead. We entered the room and met more family. We prayed more prayers (the Litany on the anticipation of heaven was very nice). The prayers helped quite a bit again and, in the midst of suffering, I honestly felt like we did some good. It wasn’t perfect (we might have held onto silences a little too long) but I thought it went well. And I am really glad that I had the backup that I did.
I doubt this will be the only death that I see during my unit at CPE but it was no where near as scary as I thought it could have been. And even though it went smoothly, I do feel changed by the experience. A few months ago, I helped baptize a young newborn. Yesterday, I preformed the last rites for someone who had lived a long life. I’ve book ended life, so to speak. Now I just need to learn how to deal and minister to all those folks located in the middle.