Jun 20th, Listening to Your Life: through the sacred stories of others
A Part of the Series:
Jun 20th, Listening to Your Life: through the sacred stories of others
Psalm 139 says, where can I go from your spirit? Where can I flee from your presence if I make my way to the highest heavens you are there. If I make my bed in the very depths of hell, you are there. I remember when my wife Laurie was in the ICU on a ventilator fighting for her life. One morning I was sitting in the corner of a room and that strange space of machinery constantly buzzing and and wheezing. Every beep, every alarm sounded like a threat.
I was scared, disoriented, numb, wondering where is God? Lori’s nurse. Tenderly brushed her hair behind her ear and gently said, Laurie, you are safe. You are loved. Where was God, where was the sacred, the holy right there, right there in that hospital room? We cannot attain the presence of God because we’re already in the presence of God. What’s missing sometimes isn’t God, but our awareness of God. We don’t need to bring the sacred into our space, whatever and wherever that space may be, because the sacred is already there.
Every moment is sacred. Every encounter is sacred. For the past 15 months, hospitals and in front line workers have been in the center of our consciousness. We owe we owe such a debt of gratitude to hospital workers. I mean, they are without doubt our heroes with selfless courage and compassion. They have endured and continue to endure what what could very well be described as the depths of hell. Today, they have invited the Reverend Scott Johnson, a chaplain at St.
Charles, to to share a conversation with us. You know, we are so blessed that St. Charles embraces spiritual care and chaplaincy as a vital, a vital part of the healing team. I mean, the chaplains at St. Charles are absolutely amazing. They’re highly educated and trained, deeply, deeply committed to not only the spiritual care of patients and their families, but also the care for the staff who experience on a daily basis so much trauma. You know, there have been numerous times I’ve reached out to the spiritual care team at St.
Charles, especially in this last year, asking if they might care for members of our church community in the hospital. And their presence and their care has been such a gift, someone thirty nine reminds us. The sacred the holy is always present, even in those unexpected places. I’ve asked Scott to share with us stories where where he is, witness the sacred that we might be reminded every moment, every encounter is sacred. Scott, welcome. Thanks so much for joining us today.
I’m really glad that you’re here and inviting us into the corridors of St. Charles through the story. Would you mind sharing some of your stories with us?
Well, thanks, Steve, and it’s great. Great to be with you all. As always, I’d love to share some stories. I want to just paint some some pictures for you, if that’s if that’s OK. One is just this covid era that we’ve been in for the longest time. And to picture what it’s like for not just patients, but for staff in the ICU, you know, patient might be in the ICU, might be intubated for 30, 45 days, all alone with no visitors.
The only people that do get to be in the room with them have spacesuits on. They’ve got a paper helmet with a battery pack and they’ve got all the gowns and the gloves and the shoe coverings and and it’s really hard to hear through those. I mean, most of these patients are deeply sedated anyway. But one of the common tools that has been used in the ICU or iPads these days and with an iPad is the way that family members say goodbye after a patient has grown fibrotic and there’s no no chance of recovery for them.
Family members say goodbye through FaceTime video and then the staff withdraw care and then, you know, the patient dies. His family watch through the iPad. It’s pretty remarkable the strain that that puts on our nurses feeling. But I just wish I could this could be different and wish it could be better. So, yeah, I work with both spiritual care and palliative care. Palliative care is a team of provider, usually a doctor, but also nurse practitioners, social work.
And then myself as chaplain. I serve that team 100 percent of the time. We often get involved with covid patients when it gets a little tricky or messy. We’re sort of the communication team where we’ve sought out symptom management and goals of care, that those are kind of the two main things that we do. And a few stories around being involved is the palliative care chaplain in the ICU setting is getting to know families who then tell us stories and we get to know patients.
One patient was cultural and spiritual dancer for his tribe in Warm Springs, really, and ended up seeing pictures of just vibrant colors of of turquoise and yellow and red. And and he had all this regalia that he would wear along with with dancing, moccasins and prayer. The family requests, they’re like, can we get these items to you? Because there’s something also that’s tricky about covid patients is that when they die and then they place the body into the body bag in the room and it gets zipped up, it stays zipped up, it’s pretty crazy that bag stays zipped up until it’s either buried or cremated.
Wow. And so this family said, is there any way that we can get his regalia and his moccasins with him in the bag? So in the bag. In the bag prior to it being zipped up, right? Yeah. And so with the ICU staff and just with good coordination and care that was able to happen, I can’t imagine how important that must have been for the family. I think it just brought dignity, dignity and a sense of meaning out of the meaningless for them that, you know, their are able to honor their loved one that way by by not being able to be present themselves, but to provide what was so significant.
And they feel sacred.
Yeah, it felt really sacred for us. When we tell those stories to even other caregivers, they’re there moved. It kind of gives them a sense of validity and purpose for for the work that they do. There are some exceptions to people dying alone in their isolated room. It takes incredible coordination with respiratory therapy, with nursing, with with lots of caregivers. And at times and this is pretty unique to St. Charles, there’s a patio outside that’s fairly close to the ICU.
You might have seen it in your travels through there. We’ve taken patients with their full ventilators and their big IV tree and all their stuff out to the patio with everybody donned and all of that PPE like we talked about, and then family members that can’t get into the hospital, a lot of them that are covered, exposed, are able to come around the hospital, up the set of stairs and be present with their loved one on the patio. And then we extubate to comfort.
On the patio with family present, one was the spouse of a Yakama nation’s priest, and he invited Chaplain Jack Erskin and myself because our palliative care team was following out to the patio with them and said he’s going to want us to pray at a certain point in time. But they did something really unique. They brought in all kinds of pictures, framed, unframed. And as this patient was laying in their bed with all this stuff attached out on the patio, they placed these pictures like a collage, like a sort of a life review collage of the story of their life before they went into chants, singing and prayers.
And then at one point, the priest kind of looked to Jack and I nodded and Jack prayed and then I prayed. And then the daughter that was at the foot of the bed made a declaration. She goes, I heard an owl in the middle of the day. And that means it’s time for somebody to transition within that culture. And so for her, there was peace, there was peace that the sense of the divine through an owl being heard.
And then this chief just looked at us and says, we can go now. And they just left pretty quickly after that. It was it was really moving, obviously still moving.
Seems like not only a recognition of the dignity of the person, you know, but the sense of the sacred that is present in all of that and life and death and the circle now, which we can never be separated.
And that transitions aren’t scary, but they’re blessed. Wow. Yeah.
Both. Yeah, both.
Yeah. And I think there’s a sense of within the caregivers that that this is the work we need to be doing. This is why we were called to our role, you know, as a as a medical caregiver. And it enriches their lives. You can just sense that it gives them like, OK, I can breathe today, even in the midst of covid.
What I hear in that, too, is not so much. Seeing your role is as bringing the sacred, but helping recognize the sacred that is already present there.
Not only for the patients and their families, but also for the caregivers.
The staff. Yeah. Equally as important. Yeah. Yeah, right. We had a covid patient this week that was in airborne precautions. It’s the most intense. It’s the one that requires all the spacesuits sort of stuff for most caregivers. And they were requesting communion. They weren’t intubated in the ICU. They were in the next level up of care on a big bipap real loud. And they requested the sacrament of Holy Communion. You know, in an airborne nobody goes in, you know, except for staff.
And so I was like, OK, let’s figure out how we’re going to pull this off. This is just this week in the afternoon. And I’m going, do I run home and grab supplies? Started looking around and I’m like, I really want her to to have this, you know, in a timely manner. So I ran down to the deli and I’m looking around and I found BlackBerry Kombucha and I thought, well, maybe this work.
And so I bought a bottle of BlackBerry Cambage boots and I go up to the cafeteria and I’m looking for just like a piece of bread, you know. And I found this wrapped dinner roll, just perfectly fresh dinner roll. That’s by all the by all the pre Ratman premade salads. And I’m like, oh gosh, that’s perfect. So I get the bread and have the computer in my hand and one of the staff in the cafeteria that knows me because I go, Scott, what are you doing?
And I said, I’m about to go serve communion to a patient and I’m going to use BlackBerry Kombucha. And she laughed and said, you know, I think we have some red wine we use for cooking certain recipes in the back. And so she jumped in and became a part of this thing goes, I’m going to go I’m going to go find this, you know, got into the purpose in the meaning of what we were doing and came out with a little bit of red wine.
And so I took these elements and got all dolled up in the gear. Right. And the nurses all dolled up. And we we timed it. We go into the room and we positioned the patient further up in the bed. When you get the bed raised and the nurse is managing her bipap, that’s just, you know, crankin with noise. And I’m blurting out as loud as I can, you know, through all the muffled nurse, the liturgy for the sacrament.
And then we get to the point where I call her by name and say, this is the body of Christ that’s broken for you and the nurse Peel’s. Back to BiPAP, she takes the body and then the mask, you know, goes right back on, and other than me speaking, there was no real conversational stuff happening because she, you know, too sick. And then we do the cup and then we finished the liturgy and then she just makes this piercing eye contact.
And then I was able to see her the next day and she was off the BiPAP on nasal cannula. And we’re able to process what that meant for her. And yeah, there was there was a sense of presence, talk about living that scripture. There is nothing that can separate us from the love of God. Yeah, not even a BiPAP, not even a Bible. But it was pretty, pretty wonderful to be able to as a chaplain, as an ordained minister, to to live out my ordination.
My sense of of call is a hospital based chaplain in that way. Right. You know, I mean, that gives me stamina to keep going. Right. You know, in the midst of the hardships that are happening right now, right now, I also want to tell a story about God’s presence. That’s the sense of the divine, particularly with our palliative care team, with goals of care, what I call difficult but critical conversations had a chance to build a relationship with a gentleman for, I think like nine or 10 days where our team got involved in and it was complicated.
He had severe aortic stenosis narrowing. And in it, his heart was this week congestive heart failure and his heart was just getting weaker and weaker. And he knew it and he couldn’t hardly get out of bed anymore because of it. And cardiology came in and thought they might be able to offer surgery. And then they decided this is too risky. And so our teams, they’re just trying to help sort out, you know, where are we and where are we going?
And it took time and very strong Christian faith. And so we would pray together as a part of every visit and just ask for God’s presence and guidance. But he was nervous, anxious. And then as our plan was developing, he was always requesting the plan. And we came up with this theme that we just latched on to, he and I and really our whole team, peace with the plan. Let’s have peace with the plan, and the plan was to go to one of our outlying hospitals to what’s called a swing bed for some skilled therapies just to see if we can get a little bit stronger and buy some time to get medical approval to then find placement with hospice.
That was kind of that was kind of a long term simple plan. But he was still full code with this failing heart that was so tired. And at one point, one of our docs goes, man, I just don’t have the heart to go badger him about this anymore. It just doesn’t seem human. Right. You know, to to just go pound this over his head. And I said I said he and I are pretty close. And this is just this last week, I said, I’m going to go in and have a chat with him.
And we went in and I was honestly able to share that, you know, my heart goes out for you. You have grown to be a person that I care for, and I’m deeply concerned about your heart. And if your heart were to stop and with you being full code, let’s let’s paint this picture of what this means. You know, that means here in the hospital, they’re going to jump on you get on your chest, you know, and if they’re doing it right, they’re going to be broken ribs, needles and shocks and potentially a ventilator.
One way trip to the ICU if they’re able, you know, to get your heart back. But what’s your heart going to come back to? And this is where we just had to pause and think you’ve got a weak heart that’s getting weaker. And we all know that. You know that you’re living it. If we’re able to get that heart restarted to to what gains or to what end. Right. And all of a sudden he just goes, wow.
I said, you know what this means, they’re going to bring this sort of purplish armband, they’re going to put it on you. It’s got big letters. It’s going to be kind of glaring in your face. DNR, right. And we reconfirmed this decision three or four times, left for the weekend, came back and he wasn’t on our census. And I thought, oh, he made it to one of these outlying facilities, hospitals, you know, for doing that and did a little research and found out that he died Saturday, like 30 hours after our conversation, his heart just started to get weaker, weaker, and and his words were, I have peace with the plan.
And he died peacefully. Yeah. And again, like we talked about that, then the staff were peaceful because they didn’t have this moral injury of inflicting, in a sense, violence and harm on somebody that they, you know, saw no gain for them. And so that ended up being a strong sense and presence of God in the midst of difficult and critical conversations. That and that’s sort of what our team gets to do almost daily, is have these conversations, try to broach them in a way with trust and getting to know people that can help them get the level in the direction of care that they want.
Well, thank you. I mean, thank you for thank you. And your team for incarnating love and being a witness to witness to the sacred and. So many difficult spaces and places, it’s meaningful just for me, honestly, just to share these stories. Yeah, it’s nice to be able to bring them out and then to share them. I also want to share something that we do to support our caregivers. Typically, it’s during hospital week, which is May, June, and chaplains go around throughout the entire system.
We go to the financial offices or off campus and every hospital and every unit in the hospitals. And we offer Stephen what we call the blessing of the hands. And if it’s OK with you, I would like to bless your hands today, knowing that you, in turn, are a conduit to bless hundreds upon hundreds upon hundreds of parishioners hands. I’d be honored. So if you just kind of hold your hands out and I’ll put mine close to yours.
Typically, we would do this with essential oils or balm of Gilead or whatever, and we would, you know, put put oil on the hands. But today we’re going to do it this way. OK, Stephen, blessed be these hands of yours that touch life. Blessed be these hands of yours that feel and no pain. Blessed be these hands that uphold the dignity of the vulnerable. And Stephen, blessed be these hands of yours that are a part of the journey of healing and wholeness for others, but also for yourself.
So if you put your palms together, I just want to say blessed be your hands. Thank you so much. And I encourage you to pass past that blessing along that well.