THE CHAPLAIN Series

 

Friendly Fire

The U.S. Army invaded the hospital. When Lydia arrived for work that morning, the place with stuffed with military personnel. Some wore fatigues; others were in full dress uniform. Some stood ramrod straight; while others slumped in chairs, crying.

Lydia slipped around several uniformed men and women to her office where, as she entered, an officer and the nursing supervisor stood up to meet her. The supervisor introduced the officer and explained that Lydia would be needed that morning for a particularly difficult assignment.

A young soldier, maybe eighteen or nineteen years old, arrived at the hospital by helicopter earlier that morning from a site where he had been part of a “live” military exercise.

“An accident occurred,” the supervisor began.

“He was out of position,” the officer explained.

“His face was blown off,” the supervisor stated.

“The boy’s parents will be here soon,” she added.

“You and I will meet the man’s family,” the officer clarified, with a choke in his voice.

Lydia was silent.

“We have some photographs,” the supervisor continued. “We’re going to show them to the parents. You need to see them first. We’ve learned that it helps to see pictures of this kind of trauma before actually seeing the patient. It helps to ease the shock.

Lydia was silent.

Large, glossy, color photographs were laid out on the table in front of the chaplain. Lydia looked, but she didn’t recognize what she was seeing. Then she looked again. It was a man.

“He’s alive and conscious,” the supervisor answered Lydia’s question before it was asked. “His eyes, nose, most facial bones, and lips are gone. He can hear and knows what happened to him. He knows his parents are coming.”

“The pictures were taken before the bandaging,” the officer added. “This is how he looks now.” Lydia saw a head completed encased in bandages with a respirator inserted where a mouth would normally be.

She remained silent.

“Well,” asked the supervisor, “Can you meet with the parents and escort them up to the unit to see their son?”

“Of course,” the chaplain answered.

“They’ll only be here a few hours. Then we will fly the patient and the parents to a specialized military medical facility outside the state,” the officer said. “Arrangements are being made now and the transport will arrive soon.”

You are angry, the Presence observed.

Lydia looked up.

“Yes, I am angry,” she thought quietly. “But keep close to me, angry or not.”    

Lydia’s mind began to function again. She asked to see the patient before the family arrived, knowing he would be worried about his parents’ reaction to his injuries.  She wanted to tell him that she would look after the couple as best she could. She didn’t know what else she would say, but prayed the Presence would be with her. She and the officer stepped into the elevator.  The lift would transport her to a battlefield where nurses quietly scurried to keep a man both alive and as comfortable as possible.

“It was an accident,” she told the Presence after the visit, “Horrible accidents happen. War is hell.  Especially when ‘men’ are terribly maimed just practicing for it.”

The Presence was silent.

~~

When she arrived home, there was no opportunity for Lydia to tell her family about the injured man. It was probably best that way. Her teenaged children would often greet her on her arrival home with, “Did anybody die today?”

Her answer this day would be an honest, “No, he didn’t die.”

Lydia the Mother listened to her children talk of their day, their classes, their friends.  It wasn’t until much later at night that her thoughts returned to the young soldier.

Yes, she had spoken to him when she and the officer entered his room.  He could hear her, she was told, through his bandages. She held his hand, the one that was not full of needles and tape, and assured him that she would be there for his parents when they arrived. There was a tiny bit of response as his fingers moved, but she wasn’t sure what the response meant.

She and the officer met with the parents and stood by as they sat in shock viewing the photographs. The officer talked about plane schedules and the reputation of the hospital where the young man was being transferred. At least he had information to give this couple; by comparison, the chaplain had so little to offer.

You are there, the Presence whispered. You are there for me.

Lydia made a pot of coffee and offered some to the silent man and woman. Holding the warm cups, they began to speak just a little of their son, how long he had been in the service, where he had grown up. Mostly, they sat quietly. Finally, they began to cry.

Hours later, Lydia was able to cry, as well.

~~

The next morning, the chaplain knew she needed a break. She started to drive to work, but stopped and took a sharp right, heading in the opposite direction.  Following the road out of town, she consciously focused on the fall colors and struggled to re-connect with the natural beauty that had lured her to this place and kept her from returning to the Midwestern city from which she had come. The fall leaves were golden here, pretty, but not enough red, she grumbled.

“No maple or oak trees, or at least not many,” she said out loud.

Snow dusted the mountaintops. The fireweed was completely spent. A bit nippy, there was an almost electric charge to the changing of the seasons.

Lydia turned off the highway and drove up a road less traveled – past the lake and near the trailhead. Stopping, she got out of her car and walked. She knew it wasn’t wise to hike the trails alone, but she really didn’t feel alone. There was always the Presence, with whom she was not pleased, but who tagged along nonetheless.

What or Who was this Presence that often felt so close, that actually responded to her thoughts and inner comments? Was the voice she heard a sign of some mental disorder?  She didn’t think so, but she pondered what might be the difference. Some people were tortured by the voices they heard; she for the most part was calmed and nurtured by the Voice she felt. What was it?     

I am what I am, came a Thought.

“Oh, cut it out.” She smiled.

No, I mean it, I am.

If you are,” she asked, “then why aren’t things better around here? Why do people suffer? Why was that boy so horribly injured?"

Do you want a mathematical answer with a range of probabilities, or a commentary on predestination versus free will? the Presence inquired.

You are impossible,” she thought.

No, unfathomable, the Spirit corrected. Look over there.

A female moose stood knee-deep in a small pond. She splashed with her front legs and playfully shook her head from side to side, almost like she was dancing. Moose usually stand quietly and eat plants while lingering in ponds. They don’t frolic. The moose turned sideways, and there was the object of her play – a calf, probably a half year old. The calf, too, splashed and kicked. Lydia watched a while, smiled, and turned down another path.

“Shekhina,” she whispered. God is everywhere, but sometimes there is a concentration of God’s presence. A Jewish woman had once explained to her that the Shekhina was the spark of God within each person, creating a partnership of some kind. Maybe Lydia was experiencing the Shekhina. There was certainly a concentration of God’s presence here with the moose.

Maybe, maybe not, came the Response.

“Then You explain it,” she countered.

How about the Paraclete?

“An advocate or helper sent from God,” Lydia responded. “Jesus said he would send a Counselor, a Spirit of Truth, to be with us. Are you the Paraclete?”

Maybe. But how about Sophia?

“Sophia means Wisdom,” replied Lydia. “Wisdom is a power not a person, an invisible spirit or force, something or someone felt or experienced, but not seen. Sophia is the wisdom-filled Crone, the third face of God. Is that who you are?”

How long do you want to spend on this, asked the Spirit. Look over there, quick.

A black wolf slipped into the brush across the lake.

And up there. 

A skein of a hundred or more Canadian geese rose in noisy unison from the nearby marshes, resuming their southbound journey.

“You do real good work out here in the woods,” Lydia stated to her Companion. “Things aren’t so pretty in town.”

Over there! directed the Presence.

The wolf had come back long enough to kill a rabbit. The moose hurried her calf out of the pond and into the trees.

Lydia spotted some bear scat along the trail and decided it was time to get herself out of the woods. Once back in her car, she put it in reverse, turned around, and headed toward the highway.

“Damn, I should have called in sick.”

As soon as she returned to town, Lydia called the hospital to report her daylong illness. Her evening was spent with her family all of whom seemed to have had as pleasant a day as she. Refreshed, the next day it was time to return to work.

Her first call was to visit with a young man who was about to have his right leg amputated below the knee. He already had lost the use of his legs, but to lose the limb itself was a whole new challenge. Lydia was impressed with his determination to sort through his feelings, fears, and hopes and to make plans for his future.

The day proceeded with a code, a death, and a worship service. A “code” is a secret, cryptic message often stated in numbers or colors, which is blasted throughout the hospital via the public address system to notify medical staff of an emergency and to provide the location. The “code team,” including personnel such as physicians, nurses, pharmacists, security, and chaplain, converge on the spot to save the patient or put out the fire, whichever is needed.  A “code strong” requires all nearby able-bodied male staff to rush to subdue an unruly patient, visitor, or family member. A hospital can be an exciting place to work.

Lydia noted that her energy level was a little higher than it had been and attributed the change to her walk in the woods. Later, she visited with a member of her church who had just undergone stomach surgery. Ten parents attended her evening grief group. That night, she was on-call and was brought to be with the friends of a young man with a self-inflicted gunshot wound through the mouth. While Lydia was still at the hospital, a 41-year-old man was brought in with a heart attack. Neither patient survived.

Exhausted, Lydia let go of any sense of guilt for taking the previous day for herself. She also noted that she was able to be with the patients and families without feeling the building anger and despair of the past few weeks. She was going to be okay.

Yes, you are, for now.

 

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