Part of being an ICU and stroke center chaplain means that more often than not, the patients I visit are on vents and not alert and oriented, not even times-one let alone alert and oriented times-three. I can tell that this has become my expectation by my reaction when I walk into rooms where the patient is actually awake and able to communicate.
Take last week for example. We (The Chaplaincy Department) get a prayer request from a family member who also wanted someone to check on a patient, so I dutifully walk into the ICU room to check on said patient. Then, I call patient’s name. Patient slowly turns head. I introduce myself. Patient slowly nods. I wonder whether the patient is still recovering from an extubation and coming off sedation, and unable to speak. I say I am following up on a prayer request by a family member. Patient suddenly says, “What? Who? A prayer?” in a very clear, loud voice. I am taken aback and wonder why the patient is still in ICU.
Part of working in a hospital means more often than not, the patients I visit are miserable and are anxiously and impatiently waiting to leave the hospital and go home. It’s understandable. Between the beeps of the monitors and the IV machines, not just your own but your neighbors’, too, and the regular checks of vital signs, etc. and the poking and prodding that entails, patients are disturbed often enough that true rest is nearly impossible to come by. And not getting enough rest has a way of making one cranky and sad, and sometimes feeling a little crazy.
So, imagine my surprise at walking into an ICU room and finding an older woman who is vented, but still alert and oriented times-three, and saying…
“I love him, I love him, I love him, I love him! I love God!”
“I am happy.”
“Don’t close the door. I like looking at all the people. I love all people.”
Sitting in an ICU bed with a tube in her mouth and down her throat, and still talking about loving God and loving neighbor and being happy. She can only mouth her words, so she moves her swollen and IV-connected hands and arms to make emphatic gestures, emphatic statements of love. All the while, her adult child is tearful at her bedside because the child knows that the patient hasn’t been doing very well lately. She dozes off periodically, but when she opens her eyes, she has a ready smile for me and for her child. And she assures both of us, “I am fine.”
It is at moments like this that I am truly humbled and grateful… humbled by the strength of character, joyfulness, and faith shown by patients like this woman… grateful that I am called to journey with them even for a short while and to be a witness to their courage and hope in critical and chaotic times. I hope that I could show as much joy and faith in a situation like hers, but I am not sure. I know what I am like at my worst, especially when I haven’t been getting rest and I am physically unwell. I hope that my courage and hope wouldn’t flag, but I am not sure. I know it is easier to say than to do what the prophet Habbakuk says:
Though the fig tree does not blossom, and no fruit is on the vines; though the produce of the olive fails, and the fields yield no food; though the flock is cut off from the fold, and there is no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will exult in the God of my salvation. God, the Lord, is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer, and makes me tread upon the heights. – Habakkuk 3:17-19a
And so, I tell patients and their families, “It has been good to be with you this day. You have been a blessing to me.” They are the benediction of God’s presence, speaking a good word to all those who enter their rooms, all including me.