I have a confession: I never wanted to be a chaplain. I just wanted to volunteer.
“Left or right?” He takes a breath that sounds hollow, like a coin dropped into a tin can. He quickly gasps for more air so his lungs won’t be thirsty. I’m witnessing death.
“Was it the one on the left or the right?” His swollen eyes look at me. The many scars and his current injury speak of a life that I cannot understand. You must be in pain.
The gurney I’m lying on slides. I feel the jolt of the paramedic pulling me back, putting more room between the patient and me. There’s no way to disguise the sound of the paramedic’s shoes squeaking in the blood. I glance at the attending nurse. I watch her quick actions. She said the patient wasn’t in pain; he just wanted to talk to me. Now she carefully tends to the IV.
I wonder if she has any thoughts on whether it’s a waste of time to keep a criminal alive so he can talk to a chaplain. “There were two men.” He’s fighting so hard to get the words. “The cross . . . Jesus . . . left or right?”
His last words come down heavy with urgency of voice. I know what you’re talking about. I tear the glove off my hand, and my fingers move quickly through the Bible.
I pull into the parking space designated “Hospital Volunteer.” I like those words. Of all the places I could be right now, this is where my heart belongs. I’ve volunteered in pediatric oncology wards for 10 years. The amount of love and prayers in these hospitals is more than abundant. You can’t walk down the hall without finding hope and faith around the corner. Nobody forces me to be here. I want to be here. I’m a volunteer.
At night, when I walk through the halls and peek into rooms, I see parents reading to their children or people settling into a room to stay overnight before a long surgery in a few hours. This is a reverent, silent moment for me. I know that angels roam these halls. In the late-night hours I talk with parents who are ripping at the emotional seams of their lives. They cry because their beautiful child is ill. Volunteering in a hospital is a humbling privilege. I’m being invited to witness joy and pain, and to be part of a ministry of healing.
One night, as I walked through the halls of the hospital, I had an overwhelming urgency to kneel and pray. It was a simple prayer: God, be present in this place, and give these hurting little bodies a few hours of sleep without pain. As I prayed, I heard a child’s soft voice singing, “He’s got the whole world in His hands.” It was Amanda. I met her for the first time that night. I found her alone in her room. She asked me to sing with her, and without waiting for an answer she began singing, “Jesus loves me.”
Amanda is the reason I’m in the volunteer parking today. After three years of fighting constant illness, this precious child has a reprieve. Today the family is packing up the hospital room, placing all the personal items that made the room “warm” in cardboard boxes with heavy lids. I wonder if they will ever open those boxes again.
Amanda has motivated me to talk with Caroline, the volunteer service coordinator. I am a volunteer. Just a volunteer. Volunteers, however, now need a chaplain’s license to participate in any hospital activity that requires pastoral care responsibilities. I never wanted to be a chaplain; just a volunteer! Still, I can’t imagine my life without these dear children. How different can it be to minister to adults in a hospital setting?
I carry the precious letter of acceptance into a chaplain certification program. I leave Caroline a note that says: “I will work on the chaplain’s license.” With that simple phrase, I have committed myself to on-call hours, 24-hour shifts, and a sacred ministry that fills me with great reverence and respect.
“Chaplain!” I’m running down the trauma hall with a pager, a phone, two ID badges, and my Bible. Now a hospital chaplain, I’ve just been paged into someone’s worst day. It’s a long journey to the location. Somehow the body forgets that it’s 2:00 a.m. or that it hasn’t eaten. Tonight the physical assault of sprinting through one of the largest hospitals in the metropolitan area only reminds me: I’m not moving fast enough.
I’m humbled by calls requesting a visit with families that have lost a loved one. I’ve learned about trauma, loss, revenge, and peace. I realize there are more steps to grieving than I know. Sometimes it’s more difficult for adults to find comfort. I miss the laughter of the children in my volunteer unit. I think of all this as I push through the trauma doors.
“Chaplain, over here.” Officer Adams is at the end of the hall. I like working with him. Next to him is a paramedic I’ve never met.
“I need you to put this on, Chaplain.” The young paramedic hands me a gown, gloves, and booties. I watch him carefully as he opens the gown for me. Why do you look so scared?
“I haven’t met you before. Are you new?” His hands are shaking. I smile and take the gown from him. I don’t think he can do this. I learn that his name is Jeremy and that this is his first “real shift” as a training paramedic.
Jeremy’s responsibility is to fill me in on the details of the trauma coming in. There’s much commotion. “There’s a live patient coming in, fatal gunshot wound, and the paramedics say he’s badly injured. His name is Kevin. He’s conscious but cannot move. He’s asked for no extraordinary measures to save his life. Kevin’s head cannot be moved, and he is lying on a gurney facing right. He’s asked for a priest, and the nurse told me to page you.”
Silence. I have an officer and a paramedic looking at me. All we have in common is an ambulance racing to our trauma room and a person who has asked for a priest and gotten a chaplain. My mind is quickly going over the possibilities of conversation topics. I’m running out of time.
I hear the sirens of the ambulance. He’s here. Officer Adams explains the patient has lost a lot of blood and might die very quickly. He reminds me he’ll be close by if I need anything. Once the doctors have completed stabilizing the patient (if they can), I’ll be brought into the room.
“You have all you need, Chaplain?” Jeremy has been watching me intently as I listen to the details from Officer Adams. Noise. There’s so much noise. I hear the doors and the paramedics talking very quickly, but I can’t understand what they’re saying. The doctors run into the trauma room. For a moment the whole world is just moving around me, and I’m standing still, watching it all go by in slow motion, knowing well what’s expected of me. The ambulance doors open again. A cold blast of air hits my face.
“I need to get in there to talk to Kevin, Jeremy.” I pick up my Bible from the counter and leave my pager and phone aside. I cannot feel the Bible through the gloves. God is here, but in the midst of this chaos I can’t feel His presence. I pray right there, among my colleagues: “God, come into that trauma room with me, because this man is one of Your children, and I need Your strong presence in this place.”
As I open my eyes, I look at Officer Adams. I have an idea. He notices, shakes his head, and smiles. Synergy in ministry sometimes comes from people you least expect. Officer Adams gives Jeremy orders: “Get the chaplain a gurney. She needs to look at Kevin while they pray. She’s going to have to lie down.”
We watch Jeremy run down the hall. Officer Adams turns to me and says: “Chaplain, they’re not paying you enough for this.”
“That’s because I’m a volunteer.” Just a volunteer.
“Are you scared?” I’m still visiting with Amanda, and I’ve shared with her my new upcoming adventure of volunteering as a chaplain.
“Scared about working in other hospitals?”
“No, about working with older people.”
“I don’t know; I haven’t done it before. If I do get scared, Amanda, what should I do?”
I watch her look at her parents for a moment. She’s thinking. In an honest voice she tells me: “Sometimes I think Jesus isn’t watching me, because a lot of my friends are really sick and they need Him watching. So I don’t ask Him to watch me; I tell Him to watch my friends. He can hear me. That’s why I tell Him what’s going on with me—so that He can watch my friends and still know what I’m doing. Like a story!”
She narrates her life to Jesus? She tells Him a story? I can only imagine how beautiful and honest those words must sound as they reach the ear of God.
Jeremy arrives with the gurney. We stand near the glass entry doors to the trauma room watching the doctors work. I watch a nurse glance our way and then say: “Kevin, hold on; the chaplain is here.”
Officer Adams lifts me up onto the gurney. The room starts to empty. All that can physically be done has been done. There’s a trauma nurse who stays behind and nods for me to enter the room. Jeremy pushes the gurney, sliding over Kevin’s blood on the floor. I lie down on the gurney facing this stranger and look into his bruised, swollen face.
“Kevin, I’m Chaplain Rodríguez.”
I don’t know how long it’s been. I’ve read Scripture, I’ve prayed, comforted, and spoken of forgiveness. I silently pray that every word that comes out of my mouth will be blessed with heavenly comfort. Kevin says he’s ready. After all we’ve done here, I believe you are.
“You think He’ll remember me?” He’s getting tired.
“He never forgot.”
I read through Psalm 23, aware of the heart monitor indicating a slower and slower-paced heartbeat. Once done, I look at him. He’s crying. I close my eyes and begin to pray out loud. In the middle of the prayer the heart monitor hits a flat line. I hear the nurse quickly shut it off. I complete my prayer. The room has become a gallery of observers at the doors: nurses and doctors. Have they been there all along?
Jeremy pulls my gurney out of the room. I cannot move my body. Officer Adams reaches over and carries me off the gurney.
“You OK, Chaplain?” he asks in a soft voice. I nod. “Good. Because the grandmother is in a family room, so you can talk to her. She doesn’t know. I’m coming with you, OK?”
“Do you think it’s a good idea, Amanda?”
I’ve just shared another project idea with Amanda. Now that I’m going to work with “older” people, I’ve decided to keep a stock of The Desire of Ages with me. The books have favorite psalms from my friends handwritten on the front page. I bring Amanda a sample book.
“My mom loves that book,” she says.
“Yes, I think it’s a good idea. Can I give you my favorite psalm too?” Of course you can, and I will ask you to sign your name on the page, too.
Adrenaline runs through me as I quickly get out of the gown and gloves, take my Bible, and head toward the family room. Officer Adams offers to stop by my trauma locker and pick up one of “those books” I always have. I nod and keep running.
My presence as a chaplain is meant to remind everyone (including myself) of a merciful God, who is keenly aware of what happens in these halls; a reminder that He, too, feels our sorrow.
I hope I can convey this to Kevin’s grandmother.
“I know he’s dead.”
I have just walked into the family room. Kevin’s grandmother sees me walk in and whispers the words right away.
“How did he die? And I don’t mean physically; I don’t want to know that. How did he die? He tried so hard to put his life back together this year. His mother, my daughter, died of breast cancer, and he only got into trouble after that. So just tell me how he died. Was he angry?”
She begins to cry. I sit next to her and hold her. She looks up at me and poses the most important question: “Did he pray? Did he make peace with God?”
I open my Bible to where Kevin and I had read and begin to share. Let me tell you.
It’s almost morning, and the sun is creeping over the horizon. I walk Kevin’s grandmother to the entrance of the hospital. Officer Adams has offered to drive her home. As I give her the book, I tell her how influential it’s been in my own life. She takes it from my hands and flips through it. She stops at the story of Jacob wrestling with the Angel. She reads for a minute.
“Thank you for this.” She opens the front page. It has Amanda’s signature and pictures of sheep, a shepherd, and a copy of Psalm 23. I explain that Amanda is a 7-year-old friend and that this is her favorite psalm.
“That was Kevin’s favorite psalm, too.” I know.
“Thank Amanda for me.” I will.
As I watch her drive away with the officer, they reach the stop sign. The vehicle door opens, and Kevin’s grandmother calls out:
“God bless you, Chaplain,” and waves goodbye.
I watch them drive away. I take it all in, and narrate it to God.
Dixil L. Rodríguez is an English professor and a volunteer hospital chaplain in Texas. This article was published in the January 13, 2011 Adventist Review.