Sunday, June 19, 2016

Russian Mafia

Now that I’ve spent more time with my fellow chaplains, I see that some of them are quietly extraordinary. One specializes in working with dying patients, including babies and children, and with psych patients. He radiates calmness, making it nice to be around him.

I spent the past work week seeing patients and charting patient visits and attending class for eight hours, plus we had a meeting of the spiritual care department, which includes a healing harpist. Reviewing charts before seeing patients made me feel kind of queasy a couple of times—it will probably be worse when I actually know what all those words mean—but when one patient spat a large amount of dark green mucus into a cup, I didn’t pass out, so that was good. Reading about medical matters seems to be more disturbing than directly observing their effects.

I visited one patient with Samantha and that was very illuminating in part because our interpretations of what the patient was saying contrasted greatly. Of course, maybe I was right and Samantha was wrong, but since she’s been at this for a while now, she likely is correct. Then again, I’ve lived for 21 more years than she has, so maybe I’m right. Anyway, it was interesting that we could see the same patient and hear the same words and come to very different conclusions.

I was in a hospital elevator one morning with one other person, a doctor. A second doctor got on and whispered to me, just loud enough for the other doctor to hear, “Be careful around him: Russian mafia.”

There is a lot of talk about emotions in clinical pastoral education. It appears a key chaplain task is to identify and empathize with the emotions of others, which requires identifying one’s own emotions. My mental health professional is going to be shocked when she asks me, “How did that make you feel?” and I answer, for the first time in 34 years, “Sad,” instead of, “None of your business.”

I have had a lot of two-minute conversations with patients so far:


“Hello, my name is Bugwalk, and I’m a chaplain here. Is there any spiritual or religious need we can support you with while you’re here in the hospital?”


“No, I’m fine.”


“Ah, very good. I hope your afternoon is peaceful. It was nice to meet you.”

One of my peers was reporting the same this week and I replied that we could hardly be expected to have a deep conversation about very personal topics within minutes of meeting a stranger, so he shouldn’t feel bad, but Samantha said she begged to differ. She said you absolutely can get to these topics in an initial conversation, which threw me into a slight crisis: do I want to do such a thing? Is it even beneficial?

When Carlos died, one of the most helpful things I did was to be mindful of my thoughts: “Having the thought that I am not going to survive this. Having the thought that this is too hard.” Thus it was indeed drawing on the resources associated with my religion that helped, but since Buddhism is as much psychology as religion, this does not confirm to me that what someone in the hospital needs is religion. I felt better when I came upon a reference to the “Four Facets of Spirituality” in some instructions for a writing assignment: Formal Religious, Privately Spiritual, Expressing Feelings, or Value and Meaning. That covers quite a spectrum.

I’m still finding CPE very difficult physically—I’m consistently not getting enough sleep—and it is quite a rollercoaster emotionally, with days where I feel discouraged and/or resistant, and days where I feel just staggered by the remarkableness and beauty of some person I have spoken with. I spent half an hour with one young woman with a host of terrible problems who spoke with such determination of tackling and vanquishing one after the other. “God is so good,” she kept saying. “God loves me so much.” Her boyfriend had given her HIV, but even there she had found a silver lining. I was nearly in tears by the time we parted, tremendously touched that someone whose life sounds so hard can find nothing but things to feel grateful for. 

It’s also kind of fun to chart patient visits. It’s like writing a little story about each encounter, some admittedly more interesting than others.
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