Deepening Chaplain Compassion – My 24 hours as a Hospital Patient

A couple of days ago, I had to go to the emergency room at the hospital near here because of a medical situation going on with me that seemed potentially life-threatening. As it turned out, I was fine. But until that became clear, I spent 24 hours as a hospital patient, and what a powerful and challenging experience it was, so full of learning for me! Although I’ve spent much time in the last few years visiting people in hospitals, mainly as a chaplain, I myself had not been an in-patient since I was a teenager, nearly 50 years ago. From all the hours sitting with people who were ill, I thought I knew what they were going through. I get it, I believed, because of the many heartfelt connections, as I strived to be a calm and caring presence. But now I realize I didn’t fully GET IT.

It started the moment I was led into an examining room, where I suddenly found myself in an ill-fitting gown, poked and prodded, then hooked up to a monitor with sensor pads on my chest, and an IV in my arm, while I’m trying to explain the sensations in my body. The hospital staff was very kind and professional, but I was scared and confused. I didn’t know what was happening within me, and worse, what was going to happen to me. As I looked up from the gurney at the people attending to me, then wheeled through the halls to an observation room where I would spend the night and most of the next day, I was feeling very powerless that my fate was in the hands of others. For the super-independent person I am, this was humbling!

The observation room was tiny, without any windows looking outside, and the one facing the hall had the shades drawn most of the time. Nurses and doctors came in and talked, but were they listening to my perspectives and concerns? I felt alone, and isolated. My wife Helen was with me, so caring, yet terrified underneath, as was I. But neither of us could say anything about that till it was all over. I lost my sense of space and proportion, feeling very small in this massively huge place. Was there really a way in or out? Even with a clock in my room, I lost a sense of time. Was it day or night?

Little by little, as the hours passed, in and out of sleep, I began to experience a different sense of self, where I was just here with myself at each moment, dealing with whatever I needed to at each moment, mainly to just rest and wait, and also to make whatever decisions I could in that moment. The strong fear, confusion and other emotions began to fade, replaced by greater patience and trust, and that I didn’t have to worry about the future until there was actually something concrete to worry out. Most importantly, a deep sense of compassion for myself started to settle in. More and more I could take in the love and caring of others, and I was blessed to have the spirit presence of my Mom looking after me from her photo on the table.

Yet, what finally broke things open for me and assisted me to feel in my gut that I actually wasn’t alone, was another patient. I was sitting in a wheelchair in a lab test area, waiting to be taken back to my room after the Big Test, when someone was wheeled in right near me. She was a woman, 90 years old, speaking in barely a whisper, but she seemed to look just like me and talk just like me. In a funny way, she WAS me, and vice-versa. We had each other, unlike with anyone else. Not only could I be compassionate to myself, but I could extend it to her. We chatted a bit. She needed water, which I asked a nearby attendant to get for her. She said her kids were there for her, but mostly she felt God was looking after her. And in that moment, I felt that God was looking after me too.

I GOT IT! And after the hoped-for test results came back and I was preparing to go home, a part of me didn’t want to leave. But even stronger was the sense that I would probably never be the same again as a chaplain. I had been to the other side, experiencing the dark stuff of fear and powerlessness, (including the pain that loved ones are going through), and then the light of compassion and resiliency. Each person’s experience will of course be different. Yet, what happened to me can’t help but deepen my capacity to truly be a loving compassionate container for someone in crisis. I recommend that every chaplain, and medical personnel too, spend some time as a patient.

Lastly, as Helen and I headed home, everything around us in the dark winter setting seemed to sparkle, and I felt so good to be alive!