When I worked in the Pastoral Care Department of a hospital that was designated a Level I Trauma Center (See: “We Are Not a Number“), my duties were varied – praying with a patient right before their surgery, comforting a family waiting in the ER for their family member, rushing to any room that was involved in a Code, contacting family members for any patient who was brought in by Medevac Helicopter, or even sitting with anyone alone in the ER, looking scared and in pain. That last description was just about everyone.
In the rare event that I had a chance to try for some rest in the on-call room, I would prop my feet up and close my eyes until the beeping of my pager broke into my reverie. Either that, or the whirring sound of the helicopter blades as the Medevac neared its landing pad on the roof. Then it would be off the bed, out the door, racing to the trauma bays. “ETA – 10 minutes.” Just enough time to arrive at the ER, get suited up, ready for whomever was brought in.
Sometimes it was a motor vehicle accident or an ATV rider without a helmet vs. a tree, a drunk driver crashing into a building, a lineman electrocuted by live wires, a lonely person who jumped from a bridge or took too many pills, someone rescued from a burning house or a factory explosion. All sorts of traumas passed through the doors.
Staff included ER doctors, nurses, chaplains, phlebotomists, x-ray techs, security guards, physician’s assistants – all standing in their appointed spot in the small area that included two fully equipped trauma bays, waiting for the flight nurses or EMTs to arrive with their patient. I never saw anyone or anything that was unprofessional; the focus was always on each arriving patient and doing whatever possible to save their lives. The staff moved as a team with quiet precision.
On a particularly busy night, our latest arrivals were a young mother and her child from a motor vehicle accident; her husband and their second child were taken to another hospital near-by. Thankfully, the child escaped with minor abrasions and a concussion, and was already in a bed in pediatrics. The mother took more time to stabilize with some broken ribs, a fractured wrist, abrasions and contusions. Following our treatment, she was whisked off for a C-T scan.
Business as usual followed each patient – housekeeping cleaned the area, doctors signed off on computers, security locked up valuables and technicians moved aside their portable x-ray machines.
Suddenly the double doors from inside the ER swung open and the young mother was brought back in. Puzzled, we looked to the tech who wheeled her past us into the surgical suite adjacent to the bays. This operating room was normally used for those patients with injuries severe enough that there wasn’t enough time to make it to a regular OR.
Knowing she didn’t need surgery, someone asked what was wrong.
“This seems to be the only private area available. The other hospital notified us that the husband will be okay, but we need to tell her that her other child died.”
The double doors to the OR shut with a quiet whoosh. Through the window I could see the doctor take the mother’s hand as he leaned closer. Two nurses stood at the other side of the bed. With that terrible news delivered in the gentlest and kindest of ways – the kind of news from which you never recover – we heard a cry released from the depths of her being, the OR suite unable to contain the sounds of her grief.
It pierced our ears and our hearts. Then, total silence. Not one sound came from any of us – and there were at least 20 staff present – as we froze in place. For us, nothing else existed but the mother’s agonized cry. It tore into us, demanding our respect and mindful attention.
In that terrible moment, it seemed as if the cries of all parents who ever lost a child (the worst loss) echoed through time…through generations…and reverberated off the walls of this very place.
A doctor stood in his scrubs, head thrown back with eyes closed, fists at his sides. Two nurses held each other in a tight embrace; the woman from housekeeping held her mop in mid stride; a resident’s hand stood motionless above a keyboard, typing stopped in mid-sentence; a security guard turned toward the wall.
My eyes met the doctor’s, whose mirrored the pain. In a single movement, my back slid down the wall and I held my knees in my arms, the tableau frozen with her raw grief.
After what seemed like forever, but could only have been a minute, a voice overhead announcing the ETA of another trauma snapped us out of our absorption. The area became a buzz of activity as we picked up where we had left off, grateful for the respite offered by much-needed focus, occupied with our assigned tasks.
We could push all of this aside, but the mother could not. We could hug our own children that night, or call to remind them of our love, but the mother could only do that with one child, rather than two.
Once again, as medical professionals we were reminded that regardless of our technology or expertise or willingness to switch places in order to keep children from harm, all stories do not have happy endings. Once again, there was no good answer for the question on everyone’s lips – “Why?” It was beyond our human understanding. And it hurt. It hurt terribly.
But for a brief moment, in that hospital, there were no differences in skin color or language, in gender or faith tradition, in economic status or profession, in looks or bank account. We were joined through threads of pain and compassion, of despair and hope…and of love.
We were together. Interconnected.
Although no one moved, you could almost feel our arms reaching out to the young mother in her grief, comforting her, reassuring her. And if you looked closely enough, you could almost see the faint outline of a little girl kissing her mother’s cheek good-bye…
Be well, my child. Play and laugh and sing. Your family loves you and will always remember you. And even though we never met you, all of us with your mother that night love you and remember you as well. In the too-short time you lived, you mattered to so very many of us.
From deep in our hearts, we send you our eternal blessings.
Circles of Grace and Compassion. A Circle of Love.