Routine: “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.”