Monday, July 18, 2016

Warbling Well-Doer

Now that I’ve eliminated (thanks to the conversations with Bill and Chantal) that plug of negativity—sort of an emotional constipation—I can feel that when I’m actually being a chaplain, it is often wonderful. It feels great to be doing something that seems totally worthwhile, and it also feels great to be doing something I am really, really good at, which is being a calm, open and friendly presence.

As my skills improve, I have a greater number of satisfying conversations with patients. I’m on my own throughout the day and am free to experiment and observe the results. I overheard a staff chaplain asking Samantha in the office, “Are you anxious?”, so I tried that a little later and the person I was talking to said, “Yes! Because of this, this and this.” Aha!

Last Tuesday, I had another particularly great visit. I introduced myself as a chaplain and the patient said, “You look like a chaplain. I felt the spirit when you walked in.” She asked if I could sing and I said that I can sing, but I don’t know many hymns (meaning that I don’t know a single line of any hymn). The patient thought for a moment and requested “God Bless America.” I don’t know the words past the first line or so, but I sang as far as I could and hummed thereafter, and the patient (plus the two physical therapists who were working with her) seemed pleased. “You have a lovely singing voice,” said the patient. (Another thing to be mindful of: do I like this work because it feeds my ego?)

This reminded me of back in 2009 when I was training to be a hospice volunteer. It was at the very organization where I work right now, and one day a staff chaplain came to address our class. She explained that she was the singing chaplain—that she went around and sang to patients. I was totally jealous: I want to be the singing chaplain! And now, nearly seven years later, I am.

On Wednesday, I felt kind of exhausted in the afternoon and went to meditate in the chapel. There I encountered the wife of one of my patients. Her husband has ALS and she has many caregiving duties. It was clear that she loves her husband, and also that her lot is stressful. She said she took a class in mindfulness-based stress reduction at our hospital that has really helped. Before I closed my eyes to meditate, I noticed a speck of something white on my pants. I wet my fingertip with spit (my own) to dab at the stain, which I suspected was toothpaste from when I brushed my teeth after lunch. (I want to be the singing chaplain, not the one with a frightening expanse of toothless gums.) I put my finger back in my mouth to get more spit and realized I was tasting barf, not toothpaste. I decided not to meditate after all, but to walk down the hill and ask Samantha if I was going to die. She didn’t think so but advised me not to ingest anything else that randomly comes my way in the hospital.

Later that day I had yet another excellent patient visit. This patient has declined to speak with me in the past and wouldn’t make eye contact, so even though she’s in my area, I decided just to leave her alone. Mason ended up seeing her and apparently she fell in love with him, because several days ago, I was paged to her room (that is, she requested a chaplain) and arrived just as a couple of doctors were going in. I asked them to tell her I was waiting. When they came out, they said apologetically, “We told her you were here, but she said she sees Mason.”

Last Wednesday, I was at the nurses’ station in her area when she happened to call for a chaplain again. I told her nurse that she prefers to talk to Mason, but said I’d see what I could do. The nurse asked for my name, and after I told her, an exuberant and funny nurse named Rick whom I often see in that unit exclaimed, “The lovely and talented Bugwalk!” I went into the patient’s room and said, “I know you don’t want to talk to me, but Chaplain Mason is out today. The nurses said you seem sad. Do you want to talk about what’s making you sad? Or I could just sit down and we could be silent together.” She indicated that the latter would be OK, and then right after I sat down, she told me everything that was on her mind.

I ended up being there for 40 minutes, during which she said, “I know you’re in the right place and doing God’s work because you people make me feel so calm.” And, “I feel calm right now—I never feel this way.” (Again feeding my ego.) She said she doesn’t want to talk to any of her friends about her problems because she doesn’t want to feel like “I have egg on my face.” That was sad. At the end of the visit, she said that while she'd still like visits from Mason, I am welcome to visit, too. She said, “What turned it around was when you said you’d just sit quietly in the room with me.”

This visit made me feel that I can increasingly trust my in-the-moment sense of what to say and do, and my intuition.

The patient said at the end of our visit that she was feeling so much better, she thought she would have her window shade opened and sit up in bed. I told Rick this and he said, “I’ll go open her shade right now!” He bounded into her room with exaggerated clown steps and yelled, “Let there be light!” I need to ask him how he maintains his extreme good cheer. He is delightful.
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