By Kay Gorka
Are you ready?
We ask this question in many variations throughout our lives. Are you ready to go on vacation? Are you ready to get married? Are you ready for Christ to come?
On Aug. 29, 2005, when Hurricane Katrina landed in New Orleans, I was not ready. It was the first day of my first job as a chaplain after residency. If you asked me then, I would tell you that I had things in order. I was 25 years old, had a great job, great friends, great church, and was living the lifestyle I enjoyed. I had a comfortable routine. If you asked me how my day was, I would say nothing new.
I am often reminded of that day when I see the natural disasters that have ravaged our world as well as the wars and violence that force millions of people from their homes. Jesus said the poor would always be with us, but it is hard to imagine that the poor would mean us.
Within a week of the hurricane, I was living alone, disaster-fatigued, numb, and in denial, even though I had heard about what could happen for the year that I had been living in New Orleans. I saw on the news, read in the newspaper, and heard at my hospital that the hurricane was coming. I did not know whether I was going to stay or leave until 30 minutes before I left.
I learned three valuable lessons that I apply to my ministry and home life today.
Make sure you have enough gas in your tank. I had worked the night shift, and my car was on empty when I got off work on the day that Katrina arrived. One gas station in town was still open and had gas, and by the grace of God, I was able to fill the tank. I decided to drive toward Mississippi and thought that I could stay in a hotel someplace along the way. I was in Jackson 12 hours later when I realized that was not going to be possible.
It is important to know your disaster plan both in and out of the hospital setting. Always implement your own care plan. Ask yourself what you need to work on. You don’t want to be out of gas when you are most in need. You cannot anticipate every need, but it is important to plan ahead. And sometimes that means you need to ask for help before you are in a crisis.
Change your perspective. After a week in Jackson, I went to my family’s home in Dillon, MT. There I watched for a month as the water level in my neighborhood rose to 7 feet. Knowing my home was one-story tall, I imagined the worst. I was told that the hospital could not guarantee me a position, but they would pay me for the first month. I thought I would have nothing left. But when I returned, I found that all of my belongings were untouched. The capacity of our own imagination is amazing. (There are so many people who suffered far worse devastation and loss. Take a moment of silence for them.)
My response to the threat of my security caused too much stress for me in that first month. Sometimes the stress in these times is caused by our own perceptions and not reality. It is often said: When we change our perceptions, we change our experience. It is important to remember that truth has the capacity to reach beyond that which we can see or even sense.
Act predictably. When I was present to the circumstances and being with others, and acting in the way we have been trained as chaplains — listening, assessing, and developing a spiritual care plan— then I was able to maintain my integrity and find peace.
It somehow is easier to care for others because we know how to listen to the needs. We affirm and assess. We have interventions, and we ask our interdisciplinary team for help. But can we do it for ourselves? If we can, we are better equipped to respond with confidence, courage, and compassion for ourselves and others.
We continue to face disasters, devastation, and violence. They enter our lives every day just by turning on the television or going to work in a hospital. As a result, we can get sucked in and manipulated, numb to the impact, and even jaded or cynical. I invite you to remember to care for yourselves so we have enough fuel to sustain us in this work; to be open to change your perspectives; and to act predictably, utilizing the gifts you cultivated in your chaplain training. It is critical that we continue cultivating and creating an environment that fosters healing rather than being caught and lost in the destruction. Only when we are ready to be creators can we meet our world where it is and leave it better than we found it.
Kay Gorka, BCC, is manager of spiritual care services at Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center in Spokane, WA.