Last week as I entered a room, I overheard the patient saying to someone on his cell phone, “I have to talk to the chaplain.”
I said to him, “You don't have to talk to the chaplain.”
“I get to talk to the chaplain,” he amended, and then, “I have assented to speaking with the chaplain.” It turned out he himself was a pastor and knew all about hospital chaplains and CPE students.
I went back to see the patient who had wanted the bravery infusion, which turned out to come via horses. In our first conversation, it was established that we are both atheists. As for what happens after death, she thinks nothing does, and I said I think the same, “but who knows?”
“Who knows?” she repeated, incredulous. “I know. I know: nothing happens!”
When I saw her this past week, after her surgery, nearly her first words were a semi-mocking, “But who knows?”
“Oh, dear,” I said. “I’m sorry I gave you something to stew over for these few days.”
“Few days?” she grumbled. “Probably forever!”
In defense of my position—which I made clear I was not trying to convert her to—I said that no one who has ever died has been able to report on his or her post-life experience, and I described hearing Jack Kornfield say something like, “When I was younger, I didn’t believe in this, that and the other. Now that I’m older, I believe in pretty much everything.”
“Now, there’s a person with no convictions,” said my patient.
We went on to discuss agnostics, whom this patient finds “wishy-washy.” She said she was afraid I might be one of them. I said I am not, and that I hadn’t meant to worry her.
She said, “Agnostics in general worry me.”
At the end of our conversation, she asked if I also work at the rehab where she’ll be going and if I ever stay friends with patients I’ve visited. This is an issue I worked through in my first unit of clinical pastoral education, when I did want to visit one of my patients after she went from the hospital to assisted living. I had visited her about 15 times and had come to be very fond of her. Samantha and I discussed this and she pointed out that, for one thing, the patient had not asked that I visit her. In addition, this might keep her from developing a good support system in her new home. Finally, would I really be able to follow through with regular visits? What if I met another patient I wanted to be friends with, and another and another? Samantha said that if it was meant to be, it would be—I would run into the patient on the street and we’d strike up a conversation.
After I told my patient last week that our relationship could not continue after she left the hospital, she cried. I was touched by that, though it is also true that people are often emotionally labile after surgery.
There were two holiday parties at work last week. At the first one, I ate eighteen small croissants, give or take; the secret is to repeatedly go get three more. The next day was our division party, with about 50 attendees, held in a building that is precariously perched on a very steep hillside and held up with long steel beams. The stairs up to the room at the tippy top where the party was held are on the outer edge of the building and overlook a very significant drop to the ground. It reminded me strongly of one flavor of bad dream I have, of going up stairs that become more and more treacherous. I learned later that one of my peers refused to take this route and insisted on an inside passage, which she said was circuitous.
The party was nice. An abundance of Mexican food was served, and each guest was given a small evergreen tree in a silver or red metal pot. Each department shared heartwarming stories of patient encounters. On our way back, in an elevator, a woman I didn’t know and who hadn’t been at the party admired our little trees, so I gave her mine, since I lack a yard and also have a brown thumb. She asked my name and said, “I’ll call it the Bugwalk Tree.”
I’m glad that was the last party for now, because while my stomach always has additional capacity, my garments no longer did.