ER spirituality: bedside learning
BY DEACON JAY ATHERTONThere are four steps in crisis intervention, according to Rev. Harlan Ratmeyer, head of the pastoral care department at Albany Medical Center:
1. Get the facts straight.
2. Let the heart have its day.
3. Postpone irrevocable decisions.
4. While the sun shines, dig for bedrock.
Step four makes the most difference, but is the one we can work on the least in the actual moment of crisis.
My first-level Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) group learned these steps two days into our 10-week "summer intensive" program. I went on call as the only chaplain in the hospital a day later.
How pertinent that piece of information turned out to be! I wasn't on call for 10 minutes before the pager went off: A 17-year-old involved in an ATV accident was rushed in for emergency surgery.
I walked in to say some prayers, bless the patient and offer comfort to the family. As I began to chart that encounter in the patient's records, the pager went off again for another family caught in the jaws of a crisis.
This time, it was an elderly patient with multiple physical ailments and a family at their wits' end, trying to make the best decisions they could given a very confusing medical situation.
"Hello, I'm Deacon Jay, one of the chaplains here. What's his name? And what's yours? And how are you related?"
BY the end of the summer, I was well practiced at getting the facts straight. Most of the time, I even remembered them!
A patient says, "Well, this really $%#&* stinks - oh, sorry." I reply, "You get to say what you need to say right now; don't worry about me."
As I watched many hearts have their day, I became more comfortable with the full range of human emotion, however it might play out.
Another patient struggled with deep fear about a procedure she needed: It would make her life livable, but she was tempted to just let everything end after a serious infection had nearly killed her already from the last procedure.
"Well, you have some time before you need to let the doctors know your answer, right?"
"Is there any reason you want to make a final decision today?"
"No, I suppose not. Yeah, I guess I can wait for a bit."
Step 3, check! Step 4, on the other hand, is special. In truth, I was able to do very little during my time in the hospital to help people dig for the bedrock of healthy relationships, strong faith, a positive outlook on life and so forth.
Either their lives were founded on bedrock or they weren't. I could only work with what they had at the time. But there was an important question I could ask myself regarding step 4: "How close am I to bedrock in my own life?"
In crisis after crisis, I witnessed people being comforted or haunted by the same things: either, "I know how much she loved me, and she knows how much I love her;" or, "I never got a chance to say how I really felt, what he really meant to me."
All the families fortunate enough to get a second chance would tell me, "Boy, all those things everyone says about never leaving angry, always saying 'I love you' - they're all true."
Step 4 is critical. I return to Mundelein Seminary, located north of Chicago, to continue my studies for the priesthood with many questions in the forefront of my mind.
Am I digging for bedrock in all areas of my life? Do I pray and build my relationship with God? Do I tell my loved ones what they mean to me? Do I do it often - or are there opportunities I miss?
Did my words and actions today help others to dig deep? How do I make sure that I become the kind of priest who helps others to make use of every opportunity they have to go for that bedrock?
The irony is not lost on me. Usually, we take courses and study to get answers, but with my hospital training in "ER spirituality," it is the questions I've gained which I think are true gems of wisdom.
(Deacon Atherton is a transitional deacon, studying for the priesthood for the Albany Diocese.)
The Evangelist will periodically feature reports from diocesan seminarians on their studies, work and development.