A Story About Holding Hands

Over the summer in 2003, I served as one of the chaplains at Overlook Medical Center in Summit, NJ. I actually didn’t choose to do this voluntarily—one unit of Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) is required for pastoral candidates to get ordained in my denomination. But despite it being forced upon me, I was looking forward to it. Among my friends, every pastor who completed the CPE requirement told me it would be life-changing. And, indeed, it was.

I was part of a small team of new chaplains (about five or six). Our job, basically, was to roam certain wards or units to see if patients required any chaplain services like counseling, prayer, communion, etc. Sometimes people just wanted company, so we would oblige—we learned very quickly that battling a sickness in the hospital can be a devastatingly lonely experience. Of course, if they were sleeping or didn’t want to be bothered, we would simply leave our chaplain card with information about what number to dial if they wanted our services. We also provided a daily worship service in the small, hospital chapel. Chaplains rotated running these. Typically, nobody actually attended these services, but because they were televised throughout the hospital, patients could watch it if they wanted. The two services I ran were surreal because I literally preached to empty pews. It was quite depressing, actually. I reassured myself that a patient was probably watching via television, but that only made a subtle dent in the impression that I was speaking to nobody. Chaplains were also required to be on-call, which we also rotated. On my first overnight watch, I was paged around 2am. I was told I had to counsel a family whose father had died of a sudden and massive heart attack. Talk about a deer in headlights. Thankfully, I did have sense enough to dim the lights, hide the wires and make the father’s body and room presentable before the family saw him, all of which I learned in training. My prayer, on the other hand, did not go over so well. They weren’t offended, but they were Catholic; therefore, they were expecting something a bit different from a heartfelt prayer riddled with ums. Anyway, there’s actually many other aspects to hospital chaplaincy, but you get the idea.

Over the course of that summer, I visited patients in every section of the hospital from the ER, to the psych ward, to oncology, to ICU, and so on. I think the only unit I didn’t visit was neonatal. Not sure why. Well, actually, I do know why. Back then, whenever I thought of that particular ward, all I imagined were slimy newborns and engorged mommy breasts and afterbirths lying around. Not my idea of a good time. I really had no idea, of course, being a bachelor and all.

But despite some of these minor fears, I had always found hospitals oddly compelling, even comforting. I think part of it had to do with the fact that I was surrounded by doctors. You see, before answering my call to become a pastor, I was studying to become a doctor (I actually finished all my premed requirements). I loved the methodology, the science and the art behind it, and this CPE unit provided a perfect opportunity to see what could’ve been. Frankly, it was fascinating and quite exciting. (Also, it’s great having doctors around in case you yourself have an emergency!)

However, there’s another reason I find hospitals strangely attractive. Within the walls of the hospital building is a rather extensive community, and this community is utterly unique. On one extreme, you have people who are trained to have a professional distance while maintaining a good bedside manner. (I found most doctors fell somewhere in between.) On the other hand, you have a population of people who literally span the entire spectrum of need and vulnerability. Add to this the families and visitors; all the other components that make a hospital work; the imperfections of the system; the sprawling labyrinth of hallways and rooms; the sounds of machines and the laughter, the weeping, the moans and the piercing silence of patients; the conversations over lunch in the cafeteria; the gossip shared between folks manning the nursing stations; the solitude of eating alone in the cafe when you’re on call; the range of subtle and powerful emotions shared openly by patients or hidden in their eyes; the unrelenting pace and concentration in juxtaposition with long, mind-numbing, heart-wrenching waits; the conferences; the unanswered questions; the ride on the elevator that is impending for some and routine for others; and so on, and you’ve got a place unlike anywhere else on the planet. This often jumbled, messy web of activity, thoughts and emotions pulsates with an ideal that aches to be met—a struggle not only to fight for life or improve its quality, but to realize everyone’s humanity within the drama that is the hospital. For me, I can literally feel and smell this dynamic when I walk into a hospital. It’s disorienting, enlivening, sobering, tragic, and beautiful.

So as you can imagine, in this incredibly dynamic community, I certainly had my share of experiences. In fact, I had so many that I could probably fill a rather large book (or a blog ;p). I met innumerable people, had some incredible conversations, and witnessed suffering and deaths that shook me to my core. To close this post, I’d like to share with you one experience that still occupies my thoughts on a weekly basis even to this day.

I forgot which ward the patient was in, but I can still picture his room. It was to the left of the nursing unit, and it was unique in that there was a rather large window on the wall facing the nursing unit. The room itself always seemed rather dimly lit, though it was quite spacious for a single bed room.

The patient was a thin, elderly man (probably in his seventies). I don’t remember his name, but I recall that he was recovering from having had a colostomy done. Basically, his large intestine was sutured to an opening in his abdomen which was then connected to a bag to collect his waste. I’m not really sure what other medical problems he had as I didn’t get a chance to look at his chart, but he didn’t seem like a happy camper. When I first walked in to offer my chaplaincy services, he didn’t even let me finish my introduction before he went off on a tirade about the nurses. He had a really gruff, elderly man’s voice, which, unfortunately, was not very clear, so I had a hard time deciphering what he was saying. I’m not even sure he was speaking English. But he more than made up for it with gestures and facial expressions. I remember him pointing to his colostomy bag (which was full) and saying something like, “Can you believe this service?” I understood as much since he was pointing to the nursing unit and making angry faces while pointing to the bag and grumbling. He then pointed to his sheets, his gown, and his wires, and he made the same pointing motion to the nursing unit while making the same angry faces. I told him I understood, and that I’d let the nurses know. So I went out to the nurses and told them that the patient was upset about something. I believe a nurse brushed me off with something like, “Mr. So-and-So is always complaining about something. I’ll take a look in a bit.” I had a feeling this elderly man had already built quite a reputation for himself.

I returned to the room and told him they’d be there soon. He rolled his eyes and settled back down on his bed in resignation. I took that as an opportunity to introduce myself as a chaplain and to ask if he would like to receive prayer. He looked at me and shrugged his shoulders, which I took for a yes. So I pulled up a chair, laid my hands his arm, and prayed for him. I don’t remember what I prayed, but it was over fairly quickly. After that, I told him I’d be around again, and if he ever needed anything, he could call the number on the card.

Over the course of a couple weeks, I visited him several times. Sometimes he was sleeping. The times he was awake, he was the same—upset and complaining. It wasn’t really too much of a problem for me. To a certain degree, I liked the consistency of his personality. No surprises. Also, when I tried to empathize (which was also part of our training), I could see how this man would be upset with his situation. But at the same time, I knew the nurses in the unit were quite good at their jobs. So, I had a feeling he was just a guy who needed to lash out about his frustrations, and the nurses were his easiest targets.

However, as I got to know him, one of things I noticed was that he never had any visitors. The cynical part of me could see why. I extrapolated his current personality backwards in time, and I saw a man who wasn’t very pleasant to be around. But, of course, that clearly is not fair because I literally had no information about his past as our conversations typically boiled down to grunts and gestures and prayers. So I pushed the inner cynic aside. When I did so, what was left was this overwhelming feeling of sadness—I literally never saw anyone visit him. And what made it even more depressing was that he also never even seemed to be expecting anybody to visit. So with time, I came to feel compassion for him, and I actually looked forward to our visits.

I remember this one time I stopped by his room, things were different. I could tell he was awake, but he wasn’t his typical self. He was lying on his left side, and he was quiet and very still. He seemed to be in a lot of pain, so I pulled up a chair and sat down next to him on his right. Without turning his head to me, he weakly lifted his right hand and started reaching for my hand. I took his hand, and I felt him squeeze with what seemed to be all the strength he could muster. As I held his hand in mine, I felt it tremble. I didn’t really know what to do, so I said a prayer for him. After the prayer, I sat in silence for a few moments still holding his hand. Then I tried ever so slightly to pull my hand away, but he tightened his grip. He didn’t want me to leave. So, I stayed. I’m not sure how long, but I stayed as long as I could.

After what seemed like quite a while, he eventually loosened his grip. I slipped my hand out gently and placed his on his side, and I quietly left the room. I didn’t want to linger too long as I had to get home, and I knew I’d see him again next week.

I didn’t think much about the patient over the weekend, but when I returned on Monday, I made sure my rounds would take me past his room. When I finally got to his room later that day, I walked inside. To my surprise, the bed was empty. I wasn’t shocked because typically this meant the patient was discharged. I was happy for him. I thought to myself, “Nice, he was released. I hope he’s feeling better.” After giving myself a moment of closure by taking in the empty room and imagining the patient at home with his family (that never showed), I walked to the nursing unit to confirm what happened to him. The nurse said, “Oh, Mr. So-and-So? He died over the weekend.”

I was stunned. I literally felt the air empty from my lungs in a reverse gasp, as if the room suddenly became a vacuum. And in an instant, it dawned on me why he wanted to hold my hand so long on Friday—he didn’t want to die alone. This revelation made the room spin, and I had to grab a ledge to steady myself. He didn’t want to die alone, I thought to myself. But he did.

The nurse saw me, and she said, “Don’t worry, he’s in a better place now.” But inside, I said, But he still died alone. No one should die alone.

To this day, thinking about what happened still brings tears to my eyes. A part of me still wishes I had been on-call that weekend or that I would have at least realized what he was communicating that Friday. But I didn’t realize, and I know that I probably couldn’t have. I don’t beat myself up about what happened, but the memory remains.

Frankly, I don’t like to reduce people’s deaths into learning opportunities because people are much more than that, but I did learn from this patient. The time I spent with him helps me to remember that there are living people whose hearts are breaking every day because of loneliness, and they’ll do anything, stupid things, even complain and irritate people, to get someone to notice that they exist; that they’re human; that they have hearts and needs and long to be known and cherished; and that sometimes, even the roughest of them like to have their hands held.

While I don’t remember the man’s name, the short time I knew him affected my life profoundly. The times I feel alone, I think of him. And the times I feel loved by family and friends, I think of him. He changed permanently the way I look at people. I can only hope that the one time I held his hand was of some comfort to him.

Loneliness is the most terrible poverty.

– Mother Theresa

[I will be doing a couple more posts on my experiences as a chaplain throughout the racism series.]

10 thoughts on “A Story About Holding Hands

  1. Thank you for sharing this experience! I have recently started hospital chaplaincy and your writing is inspirational; keep it up!

    • Hi Tony! Thanks for the comment & the encouragement!

      And it’s awesome that you’re going through hospital chaplaincy. I hope it’s an amazing and blessed experience for you and those to whom you will be ministering. Is it for a large hospital or a small one? I find many hospitals nowadays don’t have chaplaincy programs. Godspeed, Tony!

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