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Anything But Routine

UAB TRAUMA HELICOPTERRoutine:  “an unvarying or habitual method or procedure.”

Even though I work at hospital, my work can still be routine at times. In the Pastoral Care department, we are usually called during critical times with patients and families, as well as making routine visits on various units.  This happens every day.  It is all part of what we do as healthcare workers.

But when you are on the receiving side of the caregiving equation in the hospital, I had a reminder recently that it is anything but routine.

Malcolm, I’ve had an accident,” he said.  “Are you hurt?” I quickly asked while thanking God it was his voice calling me from his cell phone and not a state trooper.  “I’m hurt a little, but the car is bad,” he offered apologetically.  At this point you realize just how insignificant a ton of steel and leather really is. You can find another car.

“Where are you?  I will be right there,” I said as I quickly hung up the phone.

My emotions bounced like a float bobbing on the ocean with a hurricane on the horizon.

After what seemed like an eternity, medical professionals made the decision to put him on a helicopter to get him the help he needed as quickly as possible.  He was flown to the hospital where I work.  It is hard to describe how we felt when we got into our car to drive to the hospital while seeing that life-saver helicopter loading our son as its passenger.

When we got to the hospital, we listened for any encouraging, hope-filled words, and we clung to them by repeating them over and over to one another, “It could have been so much worse.”  We all knew what that meant.  “He will eventually be ok,” we said.

The Emergency Department sprung into action with its own finely-tuned routine with different specialists coming in and out of the room, examining him, asking questions how this happened, and explaining diagnoses and treatments.  MRI’s, X-rays, and other tests were  repeated over and over again.  Wounds were cleaned, stitches carefully given.  After awhile, we felt numb, our heads were swimming, and we had some confusion between the two of us if our son would have “just a back brace” or “surgery” or both.

While it was hard to remember some things, one thing we did remember was the young nurse in the ER who stood just outside the room in the Emergency Department with my wife as she took the time to listen to fears, questions, and anxieties that came pouring out.  Compassion and kindness go a long way when you are scared and tired.  I remember my former supervisor and close friend, Dr. Jim Raper, showing up in the ER and being present with us until midnight on Thanksgiving Eve to interpret what the medical team was saying and doing.  That meant more to me than he will ever know.

Finally, a plan was announced and surgery was scheduled for the next day.  It was the first of many nights where we would be sleep deprived.  Simple, routine tasks like deciding which clothes to throw into a bag for the next day were amazingly challenging.  At times we stared at one another with fear and tears, and other times with thanksgiving and gratitude.

The experience was surreal.  We hoped that it was all a dream.  But we knew better.

This time, thank God, our son would be ok after many weeks of convalescence at home.

And we could not stop saying under our breath, “Thank you God, thank you God, thank you God.”

At the same time, I am aware that many other patients and families are not as fortunate.  I don’t know why.  Perhaps there is no “reason” as some well meaning friends tried to explain why this all happened as they tried to comfort us.  Some of the patients who come into the ER go home paralyzed.  Some die.  I especially remember feeling guilty on that first long night when I looked across the hall in the ER and saw a family with their faces in their hands as they tried to absorb the worst news that all of us in that place feared the most.

After being at the hospital and sleeping in shifts for an hour or two at a time on a fold-out couch, we said thank you to the hospital nurses, nursing assistants, doctors, and chaplains.  But no matter what we said, it never seemed like enough.

And then the day came when I was one of the healthcare workers again, instead of a family member of a patient.

But I noticed a difference this time.

The first family I met on my first day back was one who had experienced an even more serious automobile accident than my son had experienced a few days earlier, but with a grave outcome.

And I remembered this time that nothing is routine.  For them, or for me. And so I cared for them as if they were my own family.

Because now I know the truth.  There is a thin veil between “them” and “us.”

6 Responses to “Anything But Routine”

  1. BeckyEckley says:

    Malcolm and Mary,
    When I received the email about the accident, my heart was in my throat; as a mom to 3 sons I could only imagine the terror you two were sharing. So many prayers from your Grace family and your friends were dispatched, just as mine.
    Your description in this email only reminded me of the times I have been in that ER.
    I am so Thankful to God for your blessings.
    Once again Malcolm, your love for those children makes me smile. One of my son’s has two step-children with the same depth of love you share with yours. They are my grandchildren by the Grace of God.
    Continued healing and happiness to your family.
    In Grace,
    Becky Eckley

  2. M Saag says:

    Malcolm, your story provides a clear description between the meaning of empathy and sympathy. We all want to be sympathetic…truly feeling what others are experiencing, as opposed to empathy, where we imagine what they are going through. In most instances, we healthcare providers are empathetic. As hard as we try, we can never truly feel what others are going through because we have never experienced what the patients are feeling. And that is OK.

    Our empathy is usually effective. But, when we have had the same experience, our care goes to another level…because we are truly sympathizing. And while that often provides deeper and more profound expression of concern and care, it is harder on us. It is harder to ‘separate’ our own emotions from our work…and makes it harder to remain objective. This is not an insurmountable barrier, but it does require extra effort to detach when we have to make critical decisions or to think clearly.

    As you indicated, when experiencing the strong emotions of a tragic event, choices of what to wear the next day seem overwhelming. As healthcare providers, we have to find that balance between genuine sympathy (caring and feeling) for patients and their families and the ability to keep our heads clear to make the best and right decisions. Well done! And we are all wishing Brendan a speedy recovery!

  3. Malcolm says:

    Thanks Mike, I really appreciate your words and support through all of this experience.

  4. Jim Raper says:

    Malcolm,

    You’ve been one of my heros for a long time. As I consider your seemingly endless supply of kindness and willingness to help others I am encouraged to do the same. In our chosen work the continuous demands of others can be daunting. I fuel my professional strength and determination by calling to mind my own lived experiences when I was similiarly situated and in need. I connect to ohters and sympathize with them at a very personal level because of my own exerperiences.

    I know you will never forget the intensity of this experience. And, sometime at the end of a long week when you are totally exhausted, ready for some well earned R&R, and longing for a quite night at home with the one you love, allow your memories to give you the strength to be there for one more family in need. We all thank God that Brendan did not a suffer more serious injury and that he will recover, able someday to think about that crazy trip home from the grocery store.

    It is my good fortune to be your friend and to have been with you, Mary, and Brendan at a stressful time. There is something very special about seeing a familiar face.

  5. Malcolm says:

    I love you man.

  6. Linda Gregg says:

    Malcolm, we share a scary experience. As you may have read, my son had what could have easily been a fatal accident on a motorcycle in early Nov. When the call came that Chip was being airlifted to the hospital, my first thought was to call my mother. For so many years, I have turned to my mother with every crisis. Now, while my mom is still here, her mind left us a while ago. I realized as the real adult in my family I had no one to turn to but God. My first call was to my church to get Chip on our prayer list. We were heard and the Lord sent the doctors we needed to “fix” Chip. But, the thing that I am most thankful for is the fact that the Lord was there even before we called. He was riding with Chip on that morning when the motorcycle wheel locked. My children do not have a close relationship with God right now. I went through the same thing when I got away from my roots. But, with time, I hope that this accident will help Chip and the others in my family realize that Someone is with us at all times, and the prayers are heard before we even utter them. I am so glad you family will be Ok…and thank God, Chip will be too.

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