3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, 4 who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God” 2 Corinthians 1:3-4
If you have ever had the experience of being a patient, or spent time in a hospital with a sick family member, then it is very likely you have a story. One that includes a particularly stressful or worrisome time, perhaps painful, in which a nurse or staff member went out of their way to help you. It may have been someone willing to take on the burden of clearing up an incorrect order, going the extra mile to obtain an order, stopping their list of tasks to retrieve something for you, willing to hold something for a family member arriving later, or even just willing to stop, sit, and talk. Those are the moments that stay with us after a hospitalization.
It is ironic that hospitals can be very inhospitable. I recently witnessed just how inhospitable the environment in the emergency department can be when patients are brought in for involuntary psychiatric examination. As the focus on the behavioral health population increases, there is an equal increase in regulation specific to maintaining the safety of these patients. It is common practice to see clothing and belongings taken away. It is also common practice to see patients placed in different colored gowns or alternative clothing (paper clothing) in the name of “safety”. Lastly, patients on suicide precautions are placed in special rooms with no access to anything that might allow them to harm themselves. It all seems appropriate, until you sit in such an environment.
If you are suffering in mental anguish, having thoughts about ending your life, and to the point where others are having to interfere and involuntarily bring you to a hospital, things are bad. If you are not to the point of requiring involuntary examination, but still require emergent psychiatric help, things are still not good. In either case, it very likely you will encounter the “safety” regulations listed above and find yourself in an environment that includes plain walls, fluorescent lighting, video surveillance, and a door lockable from the outside. In addition, you may find yourself in a room with no linens (potentially usable as ligatures), no chair, and no bed. This environment is difficult to cope with on a good day, much less when you are at your most vulnerable. But, it is the common practice.
So what can we do about it? Where is our role as Christians in healthcare when regulation dictates such an environment? We are called to be the comforter in this scenario. It is acceptable to apologize for the environment and explain why it is so inhospitable. It is also acceptable to move someone out of such an environment if they don’t require it, in cases of miscommunication or incorrect triage for example. But it is most important to understand that patients in this situation are upset, angry, disappointed, depressed, and grasping to maintain some control over their human existence. The situation is ripe for some caring, and that may be the most important thing we can provide.
Regardless of the patient’s condition and reason for seeking care in the ED, the connection to a human being who truly cares makes the entire experience different. Look to the example of Jesus in every single gospel encounter. Regardless of the person in need, the ailment, or the request, Jesus’ approach was compassionate and personal. He demonstrated His approach to humanity and then called us to be in relationship with each other in the same manner. That is a difficult command. We find ourselves drowning in human need, swimming in tragedy, and face to face with anger and bewilderment. But our response is the same, and the one they will remember. It is the response that sets us apart because it was Jesus’ response when we came to him. We make time, we go the extra mile, we step outside of ourselves and our needs, and we put ourselves in our patient’s shoes.
Now I fully understand that we do not have the capacity to do this every time, with every patient, in every situation. That would be overwhelming. In fact, what can be most frustrating about this point of view is the sheer number of humans around us. Imagine having a personal relationship with every single one of them? It would take up all of our time and energy and leave us completely depleted. Thankfully, our Lord is an infinite source of love and one with whom just such a relationship is possible, for every single one of us.
I pray for the knowledge of God’s presence in your life, and His rejuvenation of the work that you do.