When it became no laughing matter
In the fall of 1990, my ministry career transitioned from parish pastor to hospital chaplain, all by way of an internship at University of California Davis Medical Center in Sacramento.
My one-year training involved multiple calls from the emergency room where, between the usual gunshot wounds and motor vehicle accidents, I learned to recognize the symptoms of child abuse, the smell of infected wounds and more.
I learned that people do some amazingly stupid things. While most patients learned not to repeat their risk-related behaviors, slow learners often made numerous returns.
Our staff greeted them with a range of tones. Some nurses used a deadpan attitude to interview the habitual patients who’d sing the same hysterical song, second verse. Other staff members employed the upbeat approach of a game-show host, hiding ridicule.
Some veteran staff preferred the cynical approach of “seen it all before.”
These were nurses who usually organized the “office betting pool” where the winner need only guess the patient’s blood alcohol level.
Even after working months in the ER, I didn’t quite understand the reaction our staff had toward a woman who arrived one hot summer afternoon strapped to a gurney and screaming her complaint.
Absent the profanity, she said something like, “It hurts! Oh, God, it hurts! You got to give me something for the pain.”
Orderlies wheeled the woman into a treatment room where a nurse peppered her with triage questions. Just outside the room, a few staff members erupted with giggles of recognition, breaking loose a contagion of full-blown guffaws and horselaughs.
“Hey,” I called to a particularly tall, balding male nurse, “Why are you guys laughing at that lady? That isn’t cool. I think she heard you.”
The nurse laughed some more, taking my upbraiding in better stride than expected.
“Were you here last week?” he asked.
“No, I was on vacation.”
“Then you don’t understand,” he said.
He was right about that much.
“This lady was here last week with such convincing pain that we put her on an intravenous morphine drip,” he said.
“And you find her pain funny?”
He patiently shook his head and then described how the woman failed to return after excusing herself for a brief smoke.
“Campus police found her hitchhiking in her hospital gown on the boulevard out front. She had an IV needle in one arm while holding the morphine bag with the other,” he said.
“Why would she ...?” My puzzled voice rose barely audible from inside my naive cocoon.
“She wanted to sell our morphine, Chaplain,” he said.
I studied the dirty floor as I felt the currents of emotions swirling about us. I had to admit that I could see the tragic humor in the case, but laughing at the woman’s condition felt like a sellout to the cynicism emergency room workers often use to insulate themselves from the pain that surrounds them.
Jesus once encountered a woman like this. She had an incurable blood disorder that drained her of energy, money and dignity. Her search for a physician’s cure only made her situation worse. By the time she came seeking Jesus, she was only looking for a human touch, a caring touch.
I learned a lot that year, but this event, more than most, taught me that not every patient would find healing, but every patient deserved a caring touch.
I approached her gurney and offered her a prayer, while doing my best to offer her the touch she deserved. A few minutes later, a caring doctor offered our patient quality psychiatric care in a rehab facility.
Unfortunately, not everyone will accept a caring touch. This time, she laughed at us. A few moments later, she left our ER against medical advice, without drugs, only a prayerful touch from her hospital chaplain.
Norris Burkes is a syndicated columnist, national speaker and author of No Small Miracles.