Like most hospital chaplains, I spend my day walking long hallways, going room to room and introducing myself to patients who have been admitted with a variety of ailments.

My introductions feel a lot like "speed dating," a process where a large number of busy folks meet in a bar for a series of short "dates" usually lasting about five minutes. Only in my case, I am doing "speed assessments" designed to determine a patient's spiritual needs.

Last week, I was making my rounds in our ICU, when I heard moans coming from the room directly across from the nurse's station. At the door's threshold, I saw a man holding his chest and rocking back and forth on his bed.

Inside the room, I introduced myself to someone who shared an uncanny resemblance with me. While we weren't exactly lost twins, he was a tall white male, who was reasonably slim. His receding gray hair argued for more than the 56 years stated on his chart.

"Hello," I said. "Sounds like you're in quite a bit of pain. Should I call a nurse?"

"She's already working on it," he said.

"Good. You're in compassionate hands," I said.

Just then, the nurse leaned through the doorway and asked him to estimate his pain level using a sliding scale of 1-10.

"Ten out of 10!" He grimaced, as if hoping to raise his bid.

The nurse withdrew in search of a doctor, and the man leaned forward, squinting to read my name badge.

"I'm Norris," I said. "I'm one of the hospital chaplains."

In the acute ICU environment, I'm careful about introductions because my random entrance into a room can prompt chaplain-phobic patients to ask, "Am I dying?"

At that point, I usually try to assure the frightened patient that I am only making a routine visit. The answer tends to belay the fear that I'm the grim reaper wearing a colorful necktie.

This assurance must have worked with him because he asked me to stick around. "I may need you later."

So I stood my ground, and in between waves of moaning, he explained that "years of rough living" had severely limited his time on earth.

"How much more time?" I wanted to ask, but of course no one could answer that.

The man's condition once again confirmed for me a truth I see every day in the hospital. Namely, no doctor can predict when life will begin or when it will end. Therefore, the only choice we have about our lives is what we choose to do between our first breath and our last.

Linda Ellis' 1996 poem, "The Dash," illustrates this point beautifully.

The poem describes the simple mark carved on every tombstone. It's the dash between the year of our birth and the year of our death. We have absolutely no impact on either of those dates, but the dash represents the far-reaching impact we all have on the time between those dates.

Ellis closes her poem with these lines:

So, when your eulogy is being read,

with your life's actions to rehash ...

would you be proud of the things they say

about how you spent YOUR dash?

The most appropriate question is not the one we often ask our doctors: "How much longer?" The only viable question about life is the one we ask ourselves: Are we making a difference with the dash between our dates?

Note to readers: I recently resigned my position at the Sacramento V.A. Medical Center in favor of more flexible working hours in a community hospital.

Norris Burkes is a syndicated columnist, national speaker and author of No Small Miracles. He is a board-certified in the Association of Professional Chaplains and works as a chaplain for the Air National Guard.

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