By Mary Lou O’Gorman
At our upcoming conference and all year, we will celebrate 50 years of NACC and of our individual and communal experiences of chaplaincy. For me, this year is filled with personal and professional milestones. My husband and I will celebrate our 50th anniversary in June, marking the same year as the birth of NACC. In addition, I am marking the 30th anniversary of my board certification and 30 years of employment at St. Thomas Hospital in Nashville (now St. Thomas West). As these events coincide, I have found myself reflecting on significant experiences in ministry — especially after a recent visit to an area of the hospital where I spent much of my chaplaincy.
After learning that a long-awaited move had finally taken place, I returned to some vacated critical care units that had been built in 1974. We called them pods: E, F, G, H, and J. Now they were abandoned and soon to be torn down; the patients had been moved to newly renovated units. When one of the chaplains described the emotions of the staff at his blessing of the new units, I realized my own need to go back to an area I covered for 25 years.
When I walked into E pod, I was shocked by the emptiness, the silence. It was nothing like everyday life in critical care. I was ill prepared that Friday afternoon for the flood of memories that had occurred in those spaces: Mrs. W, whose daughter worked hard to process her long-held anger prior to her mother’s death; Mr. C, whose adult children who had all moved back home with their own children, begging him to not to die, for he had assumed the role of their caretaker despite his failing health; Mrs. T, whose family surrounded her and draped a quilt with a cross over her before withdrawing the ventilator; the college student and athlete who lost her legs and parts of her hands to meningitis; the nursing student who died after a sudden cardiac event; the 16 children who surrounded their dad singing in rounds as he died; Dr. D, who asked me to pray at the bedside of a patient whose death he believed he could have prevented: Mrs. S, whose heart had been miraculously rebuilt on the operating room table; Mr. J, who spent six months in critical care waiting for a heart transplant before his death; Mrs. M, who received a heart transplant after a similar wait but never recovered; Mrs. S, who stood outside the closed doors during a code pleading for her husband’s life; the daughter who informed me that she had found 99 messages on her voice mail from her mom who was now dying; the father with whom I connived to get his grade school-children in to visit their critically ill mom; and the faces of so many others, many of whom survived and thrived after devastating illnesses and enabled their caregivers to witness the amazing resilience of the human spirit.
I found myself looking at the empty nursing stations and reflecting on the men and women who had inhabited them. The weekend staff, the night staff, and the day staff, all with unique characteristics with whom I had shared so much. I also stopped in my tracks at places of significant conversations. It seemed like those occurred just yesterday: conversations of debate, of disagreement, of anguish, of prayer, of struggle, of hope, of futility, of collaboration and support.
As I completed my journey that day, I turned the corner and saw the critical care intensivist leaving his office. He shook his head, and I shook mine. Briefly, we shared some memories. Most of all we pondered the gift of our participation in what had occurred there and of the amazing men and women with whom we shared a commitment to this sacred work.
For me, that day crystallized an intense sense of gratitude for the ministry in which we are engaged as chaplains. Much has changed in the high-tech world of critical care, but the hallmarks endure: compassion; assessment of needs and family dynamics; presence, often in silence; provision of meaningful resources; listening to the story, and listening and listening; building relationships of trust; grief work and so much more.
As we mark this 50th anniversary of NACC, may each of us take time to reflect on our ministry. Whether yours is a journey of two or 10 or 30 or more years, may you find the opportunity to remember significant events and images of those you have encountered on your journey. As chaplains, we confront the mystery and fragility of human existence. We walk into experiences of tragedy and loss, joy and celebration, and meet people at their most vulnerable. May your memories enable you to affirm anew your capacity to accompany another into the narrowest of spaces, to truly bear God’s healing presence to those whom you have touched, and to relish the gift of the ministry we call chaplaincy.
Mary Lou O’Gorman, BCC, is executive director of pastoral care and CPE at St. Thomas Health inNashville, TN.