The sound of sirens is fairly common around Yale and my end of New Haven, and it didn’t really sink in until this week why that is: they are from the ambulances going to Yale-New Haven Hospital, a Level 1 trauma hospital right near the freeway and on the southern end of the Yale campus. Those sirens carry the injured and very sick to the hospital where I am doing an eleven-week course and clinic on hospital chaplaincy. They toll for the people to whom I will minister for the next ten weeks.
In the past, I have not thought too much about the people being transported in ambulances. I have been in one of them myself after a serious car collision that injured my neck, but that was a long time ago. When one is not personally involved, one tunes out the tragedies. (Students may recall the poem by W.H. Auden, “Musee des Beaux Arts,” which explores this theme. See below.)
Well, now I am personally involved again in ambulances and traumas and hospitals. I and three other Yale Divinity School students have spent the past four days being oriented to the hospital, which is the largest hospital in Connecticut, as well as the procedures. Starting next weekend, we will take turns with the other hospital chaplains at being on a 24-hour on-call shift, from 8 a.m. one morning to 8 a.m. the next morning. And while we’re on call, we carry three pagers: one personal pager, one pager for the on-call chaplain, and one pager for trauma (the Emergency department). One topic we covered with several chaplains was the scenario of simultaneous pages: what do we do if we have just gone to console someone whose relative has died, and we get a “full trauma” page–the page that must be obeyed above all others? (The answer: call the Emergency department and explain the situation, and if they say, “Get down here right now,” then get down there right now.)
In fact, we have not yet got down there, except for a brief run through the pediatric ER, because our trainers wish to introduce us slowly to the Emergency department, especially traumas, and the special protocols of that place.
Fortunately, and unfortunately, the one topic we have had extensive training about is how to handle emergency baptisms and naming and blessing ceremonies for infants who are about to die or who have died. There are rules about this: the sacraments are for the living, and so one does not baptize an infant who already has died. Instead, we can perform a naming and blessing ceremony. But the baby may die while we are on our way down to the Emergency department or Labor and Delivery or Newborn Special Care, and then we have to make a pastoral call. Three different chaplains talked about their experience with this most solemn of tasks, and they all made it clear that these calls are the most difficult.
Intuitively, I already knew that, and so seven years ago, while first discerning a call to the priesthood, I made several pastoral appeals to God, saying, “Okay, I think I could do this, but please, God, no dying children.” I have attempted to make deals with God about this: “I will do anything you ask except….” I had really hoped to bypass that most painful of ministries.
There seems to be no chance of that now. Like those hospital patients going through the fate they had hoped to avoid, I am faced with the very real possibility of ministering to someone who has just lost a baby. Of course I want those parents to have the most sensitive and compassionate pastoral care available. However, I am also afraid of bawling uncontrollably when the moment comes and being unable to help the parents in their darkest moment. I’m afraid of making their darkest moment even darker.
When we’re the on-call chaplain, we will go to all areas of the hospital, but we CPE chaplains are also given ward assignments, and I have three units: cardio-thoracic ICU (open heart surgery, etc.), cardio-thoracic recovery, and Gyn/Oncology. That last unit serves women who have any type of gynecological issue or women-specific cancers. It also cares for women who have just lost an infant. So.
There doesn’t seem to be any way to avoid it. And that hard feeling is exactly the feeling that people have when they experience bad things in the hospital: a grim diagnosis, the news that a loved one has just died in the trauma room, a bad reaction to chemotherapy. Can we rewind? Is there any way to go back and make this not our fate? These are the Gethsemane moments of life, and in the hospital, they are frequent.
I have had blessed moments in the hospital already, even during orientation. For example, I felt a deep feeling of peace and compassion for others when I walked through the cancer hospital or the medical ICU. The chaplains training us are very kind, experienced, and concerned about our well-being and pastoral development. Most of the nurses seemed grateful for our help when we went around to restock the emergency baptism kits. There is goodness all around us.
So. Here we go.
Musee des Beaux Arts
About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters; how well they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverenty, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.