On occasion I am called to our local hospital when our fire department transports a patient, and they think a chaplain will be needed and helpful. Usually, like a few weeks ago, there is little expectation that a patient will survive when the chaplain is called out. As I arrived at the ambulance entrance to the Emergency Department at the hospital, our fire crew was unloading the patient, a 70 something year old male who collapsed and home in front of his wife. As the patient was being removed from the ambulance, chest compressions were being delivered by a machine called a LUCAS (Lund University Cardiopulmonary Assist System). The machine delivers deep compressions and is quite powerful making a hydraulic “swish” noise with every compression. I took one look at the man’s face and thought, “No way is this guy alive.”
The wife of the patient along with her daughter and her daughter’s husband were on the way to the hospital. Meanwhile the doctors and nurses worked feverishly to administer meds that might cause his heart to beat on its own. I stood outside the doorway watching this medical team of six along with our two paramedics do their thing. Amazingly, they were able to get a heartbeat going. I’m no doctor but I couldn’t imagine that even with a heartbeat this fellow was going to get a life back if he survived the night. But nonetheless….wow!
I was told the family was in the waiting room and I went to meet with them. Usually, I’d be making a death notification so at least for now it was better news. Though, not being the doctor, I was not at liberty to share much of anything about his condition other than his heart was beating on its own. Still, I was not having to deal with their reaction to news of a death though the whole affair was traumatizing to the family, and they knew it was still very serious. I encouraged them to have hope, asked about their faith, let them know the doctor would be out shortly to give them an update. They shared a little about the man and his life and his story…their story. I am quite often privileged to hear the story of a person’s life in settings such as this.
After spending about ten minutes with them the son-in-law who had this perplexed look on his face said, “Can I ask you a question?” I said, “Sure.” “How do you do this?” he asked. I was caught a little bit off guard that he was wondering about me and my mental health in a moment when it was he and his family going through a very tough time. I hesitated to answer because not only is it a difficult question to answer but I didn’t really want to talk about me in this setting and it is not a short answer. I could have said, “Well, I write a blog which helps me purge some of my thoughts and feelings about life.” But I didn’t. I gave him the short, easy answer, “Good question. I check in with our other chaplains and I’m also on our agency’s Peer Support Team which provides mutual support after critical incidents.”
I don’t believe any first responder does what they do without there being a cost. What you see, what you experience will take a bite out of your soul. It changes you. Now, whether it changes you for the better or for the worse is really the crux of the matter. For many and for myself, I’d say it has changed me for the better in many ways but also, perhaps not for “the worse,” but in ways that have taken me down the path of mystery, questioning, doubt and even moments of unbelief when it comes to faith. Not to compare myself to King David of the Bible, but I can relate to much of his writings along the lines of his questioning God, David expressing his doubts, frustrations and yes, even unbelief at times. “How long, O Lord? Will You forget me forever? How long will You hide Your face from me?” But David as well, always comes back to his hope in God. “For You are my hope; O Lord God, You are my confidence from my youth.”
When it comes to “life” the man’s question to me in that hospital waiting room is really our question—all of us. How do we do life when death, disease, disability, divorce, dread, and destruction happen in our lives? How do each of us deal with heartache and loss? Dreams and plans that never materialize. Where is our hope when the world around us seems to be losing hope in a future without war, hatred, division and the loss of wisdom? “Preserve me, O God, for I take refuge in You.” On his worst day, King David seemed to be able to come full circle back to a hope in his God.
Some of us have everything we believe about God all worked out and our religion, doctrine and theology has all the answers. Faith comes easy. We put into practice what we believe is right. Others of us….on some days…perhaps most days…only have a hope. Faith is being sure of what you hope for, we are told. Deep down at the depths of our soul we stand on a hope that God is God. A God of love, grace, mercy and compassion. A mysterious God but still God. We live on that hope more than having all the answers. We are all asking each other at times, “How do you do this? Life?”