continued from below…
My fourth and last page of the afternoon came just 45 minutes before it was time to go home for the day. A nurse from the surgical intensive care unit told me that a family member of a patient was asking for the chaplain. The nurse seemed to be in a hurry and gave me very little information about the patient other than her name, Jane Tyler, her room number and that Jane had been in a car accident. I arrived at the unit, a wide, U-shaped corridor where all the curtained beds could be seen from the central nurses’ desk. I approached the curtained room I was called to. It was time for afternoon rounds in SICU, and five doctors stood to the right of Mrs. Tyler’s bed quietly discussing her prognosis and ongoing treatment. Ignoring the doctors, I approached the woman sitting quietly in a chair at the left of the bed.
The woman was Sarah, Mrs. Tyler’s niece. She was in her early 60s and the only living relative still in touch with her aunt Jane. She told me her aunt and uncle were returning home to New Jersey when their car was struck by a semi. Sarah’s uncle George died at the scene. She told me that his body was in our morgue waiting to be claimed. With baggy, bloodshot eyes focusing on her aunt’s still body, Sarah told me that Jane, though alive after several surgeries, was not predicted to live more than a few hours. The injury to her head had been too severe and her brain was swelling beyond the doctor’s ability to help. When I asked Sarah how I could assist her, she told me she wanted to know what was going to happen when her aunt died. At first, I didn’t know whether she meant spiritually or practically. I asked a few more clarifying questions and discovered that Sarah was mostly concerned with what she needed to do to take her aunt and uncle’s bodies back to New Jersey. I told her I would connect her to a staff member from Decedent Care that could walk her through the next steps. She thanked me, clasping my hand for a brief moment. She looked again at her aunt, bandaged and bruised probably beyond recognition.
“My aunt wasn’t a very religious woman. We weren’t very close, but I know she had faith. I don’t think she has gone to mass in years, but I know she believed in God.” I waited in silence. “She never had children, so she was always that special aunt in my life. I’m glad in a way that she doesn’t have to wake up and realize that her husband is dead. This way she can just pass peacefully, not conscious of the wreck, not knowing what happened.”
Sarah looked at me with some kind of expectation in her eyes. I was tired. This afternoon I witnessed so much tragedy, suffering, despair, and anxiety that I had very little left to give. Where were my words of comfort, my offering of support? I really didn’t know. I must have used up my reserve stores as I ran from one page to the next. My emotional weariness was starting to overtake my ability to care. I certainly didn’t want to be fake. I knew that I didn’t have a single compassionate or understanding smile left in me, so I wasn’t going to offer one. I looked to the bed where Jane Tyler lay surrounded by beeping and flashing monitors. Her face was so swollen it hardly looked like a face. Here too was tragedy, a sad ending to a life probably well lived. I looked back at her niece, Sarah, and saw a woman subdued by grief, waiting for me to respond. The one thing I knew to do, and could do at this point, was to pray honestly. Sarah eagerly accepted my offer to pray for her aunt and family. My prayer was simple and short. I started with, “God, we are weary.”
stay tuned for Four Pages: Debrief