Sunday, September 25, 2022

A series of events brought me to train as a chaplain in a local hospital. One does not need to be a Rabbi or a Priest (contrary to what many believe), but one does need to want to help people on an emotional/spiritual level as they struggle with various challenges. I visit people of all faith denominations and very often get to know them and their families well if they are in the hospital for a substantial amount of time. I learn from each one of them. Most people welcome and appreciate my visits tremendously, even though many have not specifically requested it. When entering a patient’s room for the first time, I never know who or what I am going to see. I do not know what kind of mood the patient will be in, how a conversation might progress, and whether I could be of any assistance. Very often the only thing I do know is the patient’s name, bed number, and religion.

As I entered into a particular room one day, I found Roy, a middle-aged Baptist gentleman sitting upright in his bed. The blanket was pulled up to his waist and he was shirtless, exposing many colorful tattoos on his chest with biblical scriptures. A quick read told me his facial expression appeared to be that of frustration.

After I introduced myself as the chaplain and told Roy that I just came to check in on him, I received a quick, abrupt response of “I have nothing to say.” While many others might have left the room and wished him well, something made me feel that I should try again one more time to see if Roy wanted to talk. Maybe it’s because I had a funny feeling Roy had a story to tell. Maybe it’s because I saw Roy as a bit of a challenge. Maybe it is because I believe that it is exactly the people who appear frustrated and upset who are indeed the ones in need of the support.

My intuition was correct. For someone who had “nothing to say,” much was revealed to me within the hour that I ended up spending with Roy. And what he revealed was nothing that I expected to hear...

Roy was a family man with a wife and three kids who attended church regularly. Life was great until things started to spiral downhill. Roy developed heart issues and other medical problems. He lost his job. His wife of many years wanted a divorce and his relationships with his children became affected. He turned to his spiritual advisors for support; however, they were unable to provide him with the guidance he needed. He felt that he couldn’t do anything right in his life. He became angry with God. In his mind, he had no health, no job, no family, and no God. He could not find the meaning to his life and decided that life was not worth living anymore. Roy did much research and came up with just the right combination of 100 pills that would kill him instantaneously. That was the plan.

Roy’s plan did not work. “Debby, the worst thing for me was to wake up in this hospital. Because I realized that I couldn’t even kill myself right.” To say that Roy was depressed, lonely, angry, frustrated, confused, bitter, and in pain would be an understatement. After the hour, Roy had tears in his eyes and thanked me for listening to his story. He asked if I could come back the next time I would be in the hospital.

Roy remained in the hospital for several months. Twice a week I would visit with him, as would a colleague of mine. Some of my visits with Roy were were short and others longer. In our frequent chats, we would discuss mainly Roy’s life history, family, current medical condition, meaning of his life and religion. We came to the conclusion one day that though Roy thought he would take matters into his own hands and thought he had total control of his life, it was obviously not in God’s plan for him to die. He realized that there was no medical reason for him to be alive!! It did not make sense; the pills were supposed to kill him. The only thing that seemed clear was that God did not want him to die for some reason. There was a reason why Roy needed to stay alive. Arriving at this realization gave Roy hope for a future.

I came to know Roy as not only the “Baptist man who wanted to kill himself,” as many of the doctors saw him. I came to know Roy as a spiritual, contemplative, selfless individual with a great big heart who now felt that there was some purpose to his existence, even though he needed to search for it.

When Roy was being discharged, he commented to me how if it were not for me and for my colleague who consistently visited with him, there is no way he would have made it through the past few months. Keep in mind, I never dispensed any medication, nor did I ever advise Roy what to do! My colleague and I were “there.” I was honored by the statement he made and was extremely touched, even if it may have been a bit of an exaggeration.

Roy was one of my favorite patients because I got to know him in an honest and deep way. I journeyed with him from start to finish. Had I walked out of his room on that initial visit I might not have learned what I did. And what I learned was huge...

Roy’s story was a reminder to me of how God is ultimately the one in control. We think that we have all the power to control our destiny. Often, we can do all the right things to ensure a certain desired outcome. We do everything right to be guaranteed a specific result. However, we need to remember that if it is not God’s will, it just will not happen no matter how much we try. Medical facts cannot explain why Roy is alive today. He should have died immediately. It is blatantly clear that God had a different plan for him.

Roy’s story also taught me something crucial. When accompanying someone in a challenging time, it is often not about advice that you are offering or about trying to fix a situation. It is the non-judgmental, compassionate presence that is needed. It is the consistent “check-ins” with the person, even if very brief, to let them know that you are there, care, and have been thinking about them. It is the listening ear that allows one to feel respected, heard, and validated. This is the help.

As I began this article I stated how I learn from each patient encounter I have. Never say that you can’t learn from a Baptist with tattoos.

By Debby Pfeiffer

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