My chaplaincy was spent at a “trauma 1” center. I watched summer nights yield knife fights and gunfire. I caught a burly, tatoo'ed man in my arms as his wife was wheeled into the ER. She lost control of her motorcycle while trying to avoid a truck. I sat with a widow whose husband fell off a ladder affixing Christmas lights.
The definition of trauma is any situation or event that distresses or disrupts. In other words, if we are traveling one way and something stops us in our tracks – that's trauma. I hit someone; I stop them from whatever they were doing – that's trauma. Trauma doesn't necessarily have to be a damaging physical event but usually our physical bodies are involved.
But the trauma that continues to inform much of my understanding of our ability to control life happened when two teenagers made a suicide pact.
My beeper went off – Code 40, Trauma, 5 minutes by ambulance.
One boy, dead on arrival. I never saw him or his family. But his friends were surrounded by dozens of hands, each in control of one portion of this young man's treatment. The chaplain reports to a trauma call. I typically stood right outside the room and the door was often left open. I held the space as sacred – I whispered prayers. I watched; I breathed. In a frenzy of doing everything within our power, I represented what is beyond our power.
I wasn't alone outside the room. Other physicians waited their turn, patient advocates looked for contact information while security guards cataloged the patient's belongings. The guard found a note, began reading it and looked up – his eyes searched for me.
“Are you the chaplain?” “mh hm,” shaking my head. He handed me the paper.
I began to read a scratched out note that laid clear intentions of a suicide pact. I took a deep breath,looked up from the note to find four physicians standing over my shoulders reading the note. I touched them lightly on the shoulder, the arm, “Hey, you ok?”
At first they didn't say anything. They didn't want to look at me. As the chaplain, I represent all of the things that are out of their control. Again doctors and nurses are trained to do everything in their power to heal. My presence reminds them that not everything is within our power. And when trauma happens, we find so little within our control.
I tried to get their attention again, “Seriously, everyone, how are we doing?”
One finally spoke, “It pisses me off.”
Another spoke up, “Stupid kid, he writes the damn note and he survives while his friend dies. What's he gonna do now?”
“He wanted to die. Look at all that's going on to save him right now.”
Our eyes glanced up to see all of those hands working diligently in the trauma room.
Before you think “doctor's aren't supposed to talk like that,” I want to make sure I say I learned about courage and diligence from hospital physicians. I learned to do the job in front of me, with all that I've got until my shift is up. Then I learned to trust your colleagues to take over for you. I learned to take small breaks in between crisis.
After talking through frustration and making sure they were heard, I folded the note and handed it back to the officer on duty. With a sad smile, I asked the patient advocate to call me when the young man's parents arrive.
I found a seat in the hotel lobby where there is a water fountain and a gas fireplace. I caught my breath and tried to imagine this family's next 48 hours. I whispered prayers and cultivated a spirit of peace and acceptance, preparing myself to look into the eyes of his parents.
A couple hours later, after the psychologists and social workers had seen the parents, I knocked on the door, both parents stood beside the bed, a physician checking his vitals.
I'm Beth, I was the chaplain on call when your son arrived.
“Did you see the note? I nodded.
“Did you?” I asked.
“Yes.” And after a pause, she said, “We don't understand.”
“I imagine you wouldn't.”
Tears were dripping on her cheek forming a continual streak her right cheek while her left eye was being blotted with a tissue.
After a period of silence together, holding the sacredness of this space,I touched her shoulder and said, “Be kind to yourself.”
He was to be moved to a facility soon. I told her that she would remain in my prayers – for strength and wisdom and that she would extend kindness to herself.
I packed my stuff and prepared to leave my shift, passing on information to the next chaplain on call.
I remember the drive home. It was not quite gray. The sun shone through the wispy clouds here and there. There was a slight breeze. I watched as the world began to wake up – a woman walking on the sidewalk, a guy putting out a rack of shirts at a storefront. When I arrived home, I made coffee and found a place on the couch to stare out the window for awhile.
What just happened? A person tried to take his own life; a person was unsuccessful in trying to take his own life. Unlike the majority of the people who enter the emergency room by ambulance, this one didn't want to be saved. He had planned for death. He had tried to take control and failed.
It would take me another 3 months to realize that my struggle with this specific instance was about “control” and our lack of it. As a chaplain and as a pastor, I have developed a relationship with the fragility of life, the randomness of illness, the frightening reality of the world around us. But those things happen to us and we have no control. This young man had tried to take control – and even that was out of his control.
What is this blog about?
These are some of the reflections that I am fashioning into a memoir about coming to peace with my husband's diagnosis of multiple sclerosis.