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gaijins finish last
The face of grace
Becker '73 (MDiv '00)
age 50, I changed careers and returned to Brite Divinity School to become
a hospital chaplain.
When I started
my clinical training at Children's Medical Center of Dallas, I thought
to myself: Hey, I handled complicated and stressful commercial real
estate transactions. I am a tough guy! A bunch of little kids are not
going to frighten me.
a compassionate chaplain is different, and I had little idea that these
youngsters would touch me in such profound ways.
is one of the few people in the hospital who does not come to do invasive
procedures. I do not draw blood, give shots, insert IVs or perform surgery.
I offer hopeful conversation, reassurance and, on occasion, a pastoral
ear tube and tonsillectomy day. By the time I arrive, the kids have had
silly juice, an oral sedative to help them relax. From the distressed
expressions on the faces of attending parents, perhaps it would have been
better to give the adults some juice, too.
I might use
my sense of humor to break the pall that occasionally hangs over the hospital.
I take the chaplaincy much more seriously than I take myself. Still, I
must be careful not to make light of distressing events. More often than
not, I commend each child about how brave she or he is.
If I can
get away with it, and the kids know I am being playful, I might ask if
they are married to get them laughing. Sometimes if Mom is looking a bit
sad, I will suggest to the child that maybe "you could cheer up your sister
over here." Of course, then I usually make two friends. I will ask kids
to open their mouths wide so I can look down their throats at the tonsil.
(I cannot tell a tonsil from a toenail.) Then I wonder out loud if the
doctors are having their weekly contest to see which patient has the best
looking tonsils. I tell them that doctors mount the best ones in their
I came to the bedside of a child anxious about impending surgery. She
was crying, so I asked if she was feeling scared. "Yes." "Would it help
if I said a little prayer with you?" Her mother, who appeared to need
some support, nodded yes. Now both the mom and the little girl both had
tears running down their faces. After a little chit chat about her family,
I asked the little girl, "Who is the bravest person you know in the world?"
Is Annabelle your sister?"
said. "Annabelle is my Rottweiler. She is not scared of anything."
I feel funny
praying for a dog but it does seem vital to make this connection. "If
you will start the prayer," I tell her, "I will finish it."
"Do I have
to? I don't know what to say."
"Let me suggest
that you start with ÔDear God,' or anything else you have to say. I believe
that God hears your prayer and wants to take your fears away. May I hold
(I touch Mary's hand as Mom clamps my other hand like a vise grip.)
begins: "Dear God . . . (heaving cries and sniffles). I'm scared. (More
heaving cries and sniffles and then silence.) I continue to pray for her
family, doctors, staff members and, of course, that she will be as brave
must have a non-anxious presence in the midst of witnessing some pretty
awful stuff. Not only patients and their families, but the hospital staff
needs pastoral attention. We talk about spiritual questions and the dialogue
is always compelling. Nurses, respiratory therapists, X-ray techs, housekeeping
staff and medical records clerks are all heroes and heroines in crisis.
appreciate a gentle word and a listening ear. Chaplains minister to staff
members who face the stress of caring for the sick and the loss when a
patient dies. I meet children in the recovery room after surgery. I want
to be there, especially after a kid has dental surgery, a craniotomy (where
the skull is cut and re-sectioned to allow the brain to properly form)
or a cleft-lip or palate repaired.
I stand with
distraught parents as they face the shock of seeing their children, many
times babies, temporarily disfigured by the surgical repairs. Recently
I located a prayer cloth (it was a warming blanket) so a Muslim could
do required prayers in the middle of the surgical recovery room.
hospitality to patients and families, just as a parish minister graciously
greets visitors to Sunday morning worship. Learning to be an effective
chaplain is part of the discernment process of my seminary experience.
pastoral education offers hands-on knowledge of spiritual care. Many denominations
require CPE as a spiritual boot camp in preparation for ordination. It
is a structured program of pastoral formation and theological reflection
requiring 300 hours of direct contact with hospital patients and 100 classroom
hours reporting the nature of the visits verbatim to other chaplains who
review and evaluate my work.
weekly in small support group discussions with a young Southern Baptist
individual and a retired geologist studying to be a Catholic deacon. Two
nights a month, I am the sole chaplain in the hospital. When the trauma
beep goes off, I go to the emergency room quickly.
patients are involved in motor vehicle accidents and come from great distances.
Parents are not with the kids because they were driving the car and are
either injured or killed. Not only is the child's support system absent
but it is futile trying to extract personal health information from a
a 9-year-old boy came in by air transport after a head-on truck collision
that killed his father, uncle and two cousins. The hospital did not know
the identity of the child. After four hours, the boy's mother heard about
the accident on the radio and came to the hospital to find out. She took
one look at the tubes and wires attached to her son in the pediatric intensive
care unit (PICU) and said, "He is not going to make it."
mother summoned her father, two daughters and other relatives to come
the hospital. She then asked the nurses to get a representative from Southwest
Transplant Alliance to come so she could discuss donating her child's
tissue and organs.
family finally gathered in a hospital conference room, I could not put
off telling them the fate of the other occupants in the accident. I felt
compelled to use no euphemisms. I told the young patient's mom that her
spouse (and the father of the two teen-age sisters in the room) plus both
cousins were dead.
I can still
feel the sorrow and anguish that filled that room. I cried. The sadness
just overwhelmed me. When the rush of grief passed, we prayed together
for a very long time.
with the young accident patient grew worse and I encouraged each family
member to spend some time at his bedside. Only the mother knew that hope
for his survival was slim. He was intubated and unresponsive but looked
like the happy little boy who had left on his first hunting trip with
his dad just 12 hours earlier.
a PICU nurse called me to pray with a young couple whose three-week-old
girl was admitted for open-heart surgery. The baby was in her pediatrician
office for a routine exam when the abnormality became known. This was
the couple's first child. They were so afraid that they sat in the waiting
room in stunned silence.
spoke the parents' first names three times. They did not appear to hear
me. Then I knelt down beside them and spoke the daughter's name. I said,
"I stopped to see your daughter in the pre-surgery area. I feel that she
is in very good hands."
was time, we lifted everyone in their family and hospital community up
in prayer. I spent the rest of that night between these two families.
I talked with family members of the motor vehicle accident victim as each
arrived at the hospital.
I took them
in groups to the chapel. We prayed God would be present with them and
that God's will would be done with the patient. I talked with the young
parents of the open-heart surgery patient and listened to the stories
of their lives. We laughed over the hundreds of baby photos they brought
to the hospital. We ate breakfast together in the hospital cafeteria.
children died in the hospital that night. Both had been deteriorating
for some time and the families finally gathered and terminated life support.
One boy was playing superman and his head hit the corner the television
a little girl, was a victim of abuse and had catastrophic injuries to
her internal organs. I stood and watched as the nurses disconnected the
monitors and put each child into each mother's arms. We prayed as the
families said good bye to their children.
the families to their cars and completed the necessary paperwork for the
hospital. Then I wrapped each child in a clean blanket and carried them
downstairs to the hospital morgue.
the three week-old heart surgery patient returned from the operating room.
Just four hours before, her color was sallow. Now, she had a wonderful
pink tone and a much healthier future. As a Christian, it occurred to
me that I had witnessed a resurrection in the hospital.
story that night had a happy ending. But this tiny girl had been raised
from near death to new life. Theologian Henri Nouwen calls me a wounded
healer. I set aside personal difficulties and uncertainties in my life
to assist others in building bridges over the major anxieties.
It is a ministry
of presence and listening, often just staying quietly with people in pain.
I serve simply by standing beside suffering people in times of their greatest
need. Frequently I cry because the sadness overwhelms me. Human suffering
is never easy.
come so people might not have to face pain alone.
Becker is a 1973 graduate of TCU and a 2001 graduate of Brite Divinity
School. He is a full-time writer and hospital chaplain. He recently published
an article on human organ donations in Ministry Magazine and is writing
weekly devotions for 2004 The Upper Room Disciplines. He can be reached