Saturday, January 21, 2017

Never Give Your Right Name

This past Wednesday night on call I had a steady stream of visits all evening, including:

—A handsome man who reminded me very much of F. He talked about how his fiancée is “the world” to him, and I remembered wistfully how F. used to feel that way. This fellow, like F., has been homeless off and on. When I was charting afterward, I saw a prominent warning attached to this patient’s record: some months ago, he let a pit bull loose in the emergency room and, when admonished, pulled out a knife. This, as far as I know, is not like F., who does not possess a weapon and who avoids conflict, precisely because he knows his temper is quick. I think both F. and this patient have a profound sense of distrust and therefore feel afraid and therefore feel angry. The patient’s advisory concluded by saying that the police should be called at the first hint of misbehavior.

—A Muslim patient who wished to see a chaplain of his faith. We don’t have one, so I was sent to assess and, as appropriate, call people on our list of Bay Area religious resources. The personal protective equipment information posted on this door was extensive and contradictory, and the type of mask that fits me best did not seem to be present. While I was studying these instructions, the patient yelled from inside the room, “Whoever you’re looking for, he’s not here!” He came to the door and asked loudly, “Who are you?”

“I’m the chaplain.”

“Are you a Muslim chaplain?”

“No, but—“


“No, but I can potentially call one for you.”

“No, thanks.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes.” That concluded that visit.

—Two patients at the psychiatric institute. I gave one a rosary and he gave me a little hug.

—The patient on my own unit who got angry at me several days ago for saying that maybe his relationship is over. He has been telling everyone—the nurses, other chaplains—that he wants to see any chaplain but me, which inspired a round of high-fives among my envious colleagues, who asked what I had said to produce this excellent result. He wanted a chaplain that evening and I was the only one present, so I stopped by and called from the door, “Are you still angry at me?” The patient said calmly, “I’m not angry. I just don’t think we’re a good fit.” I thanked him for his directness and honesty and agreed to send another chaplain the next day.
—A patient in the psych area of the emergency department who was feeling very distressed about his loss of vision due to glaucoma.

—Also in the emergency department, the family members of a gravely ill man. The relatives were young African American men and I was pretty sure they didn’t want me trying to probe into their emotions, so I just sat quietly, per The Caregiver’s Tao Te Ching, by William and Nancy Martin: “Sitting quietly with another person, we watch him find renewal within himself.” After about an hour of near-silence, one of the young men said to me, “These must be the hardest jobs in the world.” 

“Why do you say that?” 

“Because there are so many people you can’t help.” 

At some point, it looked to me as if he wanted to go into the patient’s room but felt shy about it, so I said to him, “You can go in if you want—I’ll go with you,” and we went in. Later he asked what the specialty of one of the doctors was. I said he was a neurologist—he did a lot of tests involving the patient’s eyes that I found difficult to watch—and the relative observed that you must have to go to school for a long, long time in order to be a neurologist.

While I was in the emergency department for the aforementioned visit, I could hear a grown man screaming frantically, “Where’s my dad? Where’s my dad?” I approached to see what was going on and saw the man lying on a gurney with mesh covering his whole head and heard him say angrily, “Why is my mother mad at me? Because I broke her shit? She broke my shit!”

Earlier, I had struck up a conversation with the wife of a patient in the hallway, who invited herself to join me for dinner and chatted throughout in a somewhat unintelligible manner. She mentioned that her husband was having surgery the next day, and I knew I had a patient to visit who wanted a pre-surgery blessing, so I asked her name, but it wasn’t the name of the person I was supposed to see.

When I arrived at the room of the patient, I was quite surprised to see my dinner companion, who said with satisfaction, “Never give your right name.” Her husband is paralyzed and described to me the accident that caused his paralysis, after which he had an out of body experience that he described in great detail. It was quite a beautiful story; he got to see and speak with his dead mother. This patient seemed calm and relaxed and was very easy to understand. He fell asleep during my prayer for him. I was sort of puzzling about what his relationship must be like, with someone who seems very agitated and whose way of speaking is quite difficult to understand, but they have been together for 35 years.
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