I went to County Hospital on a Friday afternoon quite some weeks ago now to work a shift that included a fairly long visit with a patient which I wrote up afterward for one of the two verbatims we have to do during the course of our training as volunteer chaplains. It was the first day I really felt I belonged there, and I also felt one of those little wavelets of joy that I count on to let me know I’m still on the right track.
Online, I saw a story about a police officer who was severely injured while in the line of duty, and in the background of the accompanying photos, I saw County Hospital, where he was being treated. I also saw an even more horrendous story about a three-year-old brutally attacked by his own father, a tech executive, and realized that that child was probably right then also at County Hospital or at the Truly Wonderful Medical Center. Maybe one of the new batch of CPE students was this child’s chaplain.
I was excited to return to the Very Fantastic Medical Center for my second shift. The pager was quiet during the day, so I went to one of the three units Carolina and I share and saw three patients. Two of the visits were long and very satisfying. The third was short; the patient was resting and said she had all the resources she needed to practice her religion. Later I was sitting in a charting room with big glass windows, and she walked by and waved and smiled. As at County Hospital, I had my first sense of really belonging there, and sent my boss a gushing email telling her that I love my job and thanking her again for hiring me.
One of the long visits was with a patient who was initially sort of belligerent. When I said we offer spiritual care and emotional support, she said, “Are you saying you think I have emotional problems?” She was waving around a pair of glasses missing one earpiece which periodically flew out of her hand. I must have answered that question correctly, because two minutes later, she said, “You look like Meryl Streep. Actually, you’re better-looking than she is. Her face is too narrow.” That’s officially my new favorite patient. Obviously one with some sort of visual impairment, but very charming. Toward the end of our time together, she asked if a chaplain could visit every day. I said I work only once a week, but would she like a chaplain to visit the next day? “No!” she answered. A relative at her bedside interpreted: “You’re her chaplain. I could see it in her eyes after you started talking to each other.” That made me wish I could be there every day.
Per my boss, I’m going to find out if religion or spirituality is important to patients, and if so, whether they have the resources they need, but I’m also reminding myself that it is the relationship that heals, and that it is attuned conversation and emotional presence that build that kind of relationship. This means I need to be in touch with my own emotions. Accordingly, this is now an explicit part of my sitting practice, sort of combining meditation and therapy.
I start with ten minutes of metta practice, and then, per Sayadaw U Tejaniya, I notice if I can feel my body. If I can, I’m present. I inquire if the most noticeable sense experiences are pleasant, unpleasant or neither. I inquire if I like or dislike these experiences, or neither. It’s interesting to notice how the latter two move in tandem and how they don’t. In fact, that’s extremely important to notice, because we assume that we will dislike things that are unpleasant, but it’s not actually required. Having an experience that is definitely unpleasant but realizing that one isn’t unhappy about it is liberating.
Anyway, I next inquire if I’m having any particular emotion, and if so, what I would call it, where I feel it, and how it is behaving. Is it thick, wispy, contracting, expanding, stationary, traveling elsewhere in the body? That is my practice lately, these questions over and over and over, and I’m noticing that it’s getting easier to feel my emotions when I’m with patients, which I think helps the connection on a subliminal level, but also affords clues as to what the patient might be experiencing, at least as a starting point.
I never got an email thanking me for applying for my dream job and letting me know I’m not qualified for it, but I finally heard that an offer was being made to another candidate, one who is new to the hospital. I would have been thrilled to get that job, but it would have made the next couple of years way too busy. Meanwhile, I’m settling in more and more at my current hospitals, and can now picture myself staying indefinitely.
Two years ago, I told myself that if my employer laid me off, I was going be a hospital chaplain, and now that’s what I am.