Last Monday I had my first on-call shift at the children’s hospital, which is huge and beautiful and new and very, very quiet. The hallways are almost deserted. As at my usual campus, we have a list of units to “round” on when on call, so I made my way to each of them, and, in the emergency department, spent time with a young Asian couple whose baby was having seizure after seizure. I visited another young girl about to be released from the emergency department and we played hide and seek. Her youngish mother, holding a small baby son, said she needed “prayers and love.” She said she never gets more than four hours of sleep. Accordingly, I prayed for her, which was mystifying for the young lady patient. The mother explained that, though she herself had grown up Catholic, prayer was something her daughter had never seen before.
The conventional wisdom is that it’s way better to be on call at this other campus because, for one thing, the sleeping room is supposedly much nicer, but that was not my experience. The bed was quite uncomfortable, and I counted 11 different sources of light remaining after the main light was turned off, including three things directly overhead that blink all night. I finally wrapped my head in a towel to make it dark, but it was not a comfortable night. The next day I ran the morning meeting at that campus—it was nice to see my colleagues who work there—and then took the shuttle back to my usual campus.
My patient visits are becoming longer, and I’m starting to have friendly relationships with the nurses on my units, one of whom showed me a picture on her phone of her one-year-old. I also met one of the two Catholic priests who regularly come to our campus to visit patients. He asked where I went to seminary and I said I’m a Buddhist. He said, “Ah, so you pray to the Lord Buddha?” Now wary of letting anyone persist in a misunderstanding, I said, “No, not really,” and he said, “You follow Buddhist philosophy,” which I could agree with.
On Tuesday I had a very long visit with a woman who looked rather stupefied; she had had a stroke. She said repeatedly that she wanted to “go home,” so I said I needed to ask if she was feeling suicidal. She said not at all; she wanted to go home. To heaven? No, she wants an apartment of her own! She lost her former place, where she’d been for years, because when it was time to sign the annual lease, she was in the hospital. That doesn’t seem like something that should cause you to lose your housing, but the patient talked to someone in a government office who confirmed that it often happens just that way.
During this conversation, a great feeling of tenderness and love for this patient welled up in me, and then gratitude that my job is literally to go around offering love to people. This is liberally extended in return. I pass a workman who says, “Good morning, chaplain!” with a big smile, and the driver of the TWMC shuttle says, “It’s a pleasure to have you aboard, chaplain.” As Paul, the head of the spiritual care department warned, we are giant blank screens that people project all kinds of things onto, both positive and negative. Some people see chaplains as agents of God, deserving of great respect. Others associate chaplains with terrible experiences they have had with organized religion.
Tuesday evening, Lisa C. and I had a wonderful feast at Esperpento: garlic shrimp, sautéed mushrooms, roasted potatoes with aioli, sautéed cabbage, a potato and egg omelet.
On Wednesday, I visited a patient whose name in the chart had been replaced by a row of asterisks. I was thinking that this must be a mental patient, as their names are routinely concealed. The patient had a woman visitor who said she was the patient’s sister and who glared at me throughout the short visit. The patient herself seemed kind of out of it, but pleasant enough. I delivered my standard remarks and then left. The visitor didn’t hurt my feelings. I was thinking, “You don’t want me to agitate your mentally ill sister—I get it.”
I went to chart the visit and had to “break the glass”—explain why I needed to see the chart and enter my password. Then I could see the patient’s actual name, at which point a giant wave of energy passed through my body: this was a very famous person I saw many times on TV in the 1990s. I thought back to her appearance and realized that, yep, that was her.
The name of a mentally ill patient is actually listed as <restricted>, I realized later. When the name has been replaced by stars, or asterisks, it’s usually because the person is a star (famous), or a forensic patient (someone who is in the hands of the law; there will be guards posted outside the door), or someone who doesn’t want to be found, such as someone who is being stalked or is the victim of domestic violence.