The other day a female patient, who I will call Jane, asked to see the chaplain when I happened to be on call. After just a few seconds of conversation, Jane began to cry. Her insurance was kicking her out of the hospital because she didn’t need to be there and she couldn’t find a short-term care facility that was willing to take her. Despite a social worker’s diligent efforts, what would happen to Jane in just a few short hours was unknown. It looked like she would have to go home but because of her multiple health conditions and an acute injury to be surgically repaired in a week, home was a place of fear for Jane. She doubted she would be able to get herself to the bathroom, to clean or feed herself. Because of various life events, Jane had cut herself off from all of her friends years ago. The rest of her support system was unavailable. She was almost as helpless as a person can be.
It’s not often that I meet a patient with virtually no support system. As a chaplain, I usually have the opposite problem — trouble connecting with and counseling patients because they have too many visitors streaming in and out. So when I listened to this patient’s litany of woes, I couldn’t help but be overcome with compassion. Unfortunately, my compassion wasn’t what she wanted. Listen to the crux of our conversation.
Patient: [Crying heavily with shuddering breaths] No one can help me…
Chaplain: Jane (not her real name), the social worker is doing everything she can to help you. Do you believe that she will do her job?
Patient: It’s so hard. I want to trust her, but I just can’t. I’m so scared. Nobody cares about me.
Chaplain: I care about you Jane.
Patient: [Wailing] But you can’t help me!
What she really meant by this exclamation was, you can’t fix my problem. My 2009 internship quickly taught me the difference between fixing and helping. Seeing raw pain and suffering on a daily basis is difficult for anyone to handle. Chaplains are people whose compassion for others propels them into caring relationships. Our intentions are good, but too often we step (not fall) into the trap of trying to fix a person or their problems.
I’m a chaplain not a physician. My daily vocational reality is that I can fix little for my patients. Most of them are in the hospital due to disease, injury or sickness and my spiritual toolbox has little to offer to cure such ailments. I can’t sew a wound, remove a spleen, make a diagnosis or order life-saving medications and procedures. However, I can often help my patients.
Sometimes spiritual or emotional pain lead to physical illness. Often spiritual and emotional pain are outcomes of illness. For these complaints I can offer some relief. If you open the door of your pain to me even an inch, I can usually gently nudge it open wide enough to catch a glimpse of the monster hiding inside. (It’s a good thing that I’m not afraid of monsters because I’ve seen all kinds of them: shrieking rape banshees, hollow-eyed worthlessness zombies, ghouls of unforgiveness, death’s grim reapers. I don’t mess around with these demons.) If together we can expose the limits of the monster’s power and refocus your vision on your life beyond the monster, then maybe you can take a step onto a healing path.
I’m a chaplain, not God. I don’t have all the answers. I don’t even have many. In fact, every day at the hospital I practice not pretending to have answers to others’ problems. When I respond to your deepest questions with silence or with the unpopular “I don’t know,” I’m telling you that I’m human too. I may not know how to fix you, but I’m showing you that I care enough about you, a complete stranger, to listen to any and all of your fears, to confront your monsters with you, to view what you see as your ugliness with an eye for beauty.
As Jane wailed for forty minutes about how the world was against her and that no one cared about her, I stood quietly at her bedside and wiped her tears with fresh tissues. When she needed a bed pan, I called for one. To reassure her that people were acting on her behalf, I followed up with the social worker. Did I fix her problem? No. Did I heal her body? No. But I believe that my simple acts of compassion were perhaps more helpful to her in that moment than any surgery. I hope that Jane realized I was doing everything I could to affirm her worth, her personhood. I hope that I helped her on her way toward healing.