The spiritual care department at TWMC (Truly Wonderful Medical Center, as the hospital where I work is known in this blog) is required to try to visit 92 percent of patients within 24 hours of their being admitted to the hospital; I think this has to do with money we get from Medicare. This is tracked via periodic “chart review” weeks, where our supervisors review our statistics. In a department meeting this past week, Paul, the director of spiritual care, said that the numbers for chart review in September are never very good, and that a year ago, the new clinical pastoral education students saw just 63 percent of new patients. Those students worked hard to improve, and the average for the entire year ended up being 93 percent. My group, I am very proud to say, hit that same 93 percent level in our very first chart review week! (My personal score was 100 percent.)
During that meeting, one of the CPE supervisors mentioned that her phone number is wrong on a department list. Paul asked, “Is it off by much?” (Like if it’s only a digit or two that is different, or there is an 8 instead of a 9, that might be fine.)
In our interpersonal relations group last week, we each did a brief check-in and then just kind of sat there, waiting to see what would happen. After a bit, one of my peers shared something that Anita, one of our supervisors, had said that had bothered her, and another thing, and another thing, and another thing. Anita took all of this in and then said, “I would like to come from my heart in responding to you,” and then she apologized for the impact of her words, which impact of course had not been intended.
I was quite surprised that my peer had seen Anita’s words as she did; they had seemed exactly the opposite to me. Anita later shared that it was hard for her to hear my peer’s feedback, and also that she felt a bit angry that my peer assumed she was motivated by unkindness.
It was quite a powerful exchange. I was very impressed that we are already doing the work my summer peers and I only got to at the very end of the unit, and only because Samantha’s knee was firmly in our backs. I was also impressed by my colleagues’ honesty, vulnerability, and ethical conduct. Another person in the group said, “I love working where you get to have this kind of discussion.” I really appreciated that Anita didn’t argue with my peer’s perceptions or try to explain them away. She wasn’t defensive. She apologized right away. That was reassuring to me and made me feel safe, as the day will certainly come when I have something difficult to share. It also made me realize that we can really hurt others when we assume their motives are bad. We think they are hurting us, but it might be just the other way around.
I described earlier an untoward incident I had at the psych unit in September. After that, Paul led a didactic on working with psychiatric patients in which he pointed out that a psychiatric patient is a human being—just like me—whose greatest tool for coping—his or her brain—is impaired. He said that these people are demonstrating courage by seeking treatment, and he encouraged us to be brave about facing our own fears.
Accordingly, when we are choosing what units besides our own to cover, I often volunteer to cover the psych unit, but didn’t have the occasion to visit there until Friday, when I was asked to see two patients. The hallways were deserted as I approached and I felt kind of nervous, like there might be a deranged person hiding behind a potted plant. Remembering the instructions I’d been given, I took my shoulder bag off, tucked the strap inside, and carried the whole bag under my arm, so the strap couldn’t easily be used to strangle me; men are instructed to remove their ties.
Once inside the inpatient unit, I had a short, perfectly fine conversation with one of the patients, a woman, though the look in her eyes was unnerving. The look in the eyes of every patient I’ve seen there is kind of unnerving, a combination of mental illness and drugs. Maybe mostly the latter. Another woman overheard us and asked if I would read to her from the Bible. We went into the day room—I made sure we stayed close to the door, through which was visible the nearby nursing station—and I read to her, and she expressed pleasure and gratitude afterward.
Finally, I went to see the other patient I’d been asked to see. He was inside his room and invited me in, but this is another thing we’re never supposed to do, so I said I’d rather talk elsewhere, and we also went into the day room. I remembered this patient from the group I attended the day I first visited this unit. I recalled a tip Jodie had given us and said, “I can give you five minutes.” (This is not to be mean, but in recognition of the fact that a psych patient might easily talk for an hour and that a chaplain has many patients to see.)
Among other things, he told me about having dated a famous singer and how sad it was when she died, of anorexia. He teared up and then said something self-critical about crying. I said that it’s important for us to grieve our many losses and that tears are a powerful way of doing this. Near the end of our time together, he said, “You’re a good listener. That’s an important skill for a Christian woman to have.” I thanked him, and told him I’m Buddhist, and he said, “So am I! I have an altar in my room. Would you like to see it?” (He went on to say that his teacher is so powerful that if you get within eight inches of him, you die instantly.)
I told him I would have to see his altar another time (a white lie—I would like to see it, but don’t plan to go into his room) and we parted very congenially near the nursing station, with smiles and a handshake. A nearby staff member beamed at us. I now feel much more enthusiastic about providing care at this unit. It wasn’t so much a matter of discovering that I can do this as remembering it. At the soup kitchen, there are many guests with psychiatric difficulties, and I get along with them very well, so this is not something I can’t do; in fact, it’s something I’m good at.
Yesterday I had tea at La Boheme with my walking friend, and we had a nice, long chat.