Made a Difference to a Patient in Distress

The Rev. Paul Rickert, Chaplain, St. John’s Riverside Hospital

Walking down the hall of the Women’s Rehabilitation Unit at St. John’s-Riverside Parkcare Pavilion with a new seminary intern in tow, I heard an urgent voice coming from within a patient’s room. “It’ll be okay, baby! It’ll be okay!”
My first thought was of my intern. Would this first encounter scare her away?
From the doorway I called in, “It’s the chaplain. Can I help?”
“I’m glad you’re here,” said an anxious voice.
Looking inside I saw a young woman lying on the floor in a fetal position, weeping uncontrollably, her roommate kneeling beside her, trying to comfort her.
“Talk to the pastor, honey!” the roommate said. Then to me, “This is Lynn. She’s having a rough time.”
Putting aside my concern for the new intern, I knelt and asked Lynn if she’d like to talk.
When she saw me, Lynn calmed herself a little and wiped her tears. She picked herself up and we all went together into the day room where we could talk. My intern trailed behind. She was very quiet. I imagined what must have been going through her head. “Welcome to my world,” I thought.
As we sat down together, Lynn looked less than enthusiastic about talking to me – a complete stranger.
I tried to put her at ease.
I started by asking that most basic pastoral question, “Lynn, can you tell me what happened?”
She hesitated at first, then slowly revealed that she was just 20 years old and had been mandated to rehab by the courts. She had been in jail four previous times. But this was different. This time “it was something serious.”
“What made you cry?” I asked her.
By now she was starting to feel that I was a concerned listener and the rest of the story came out in a torrent of words and tears.
It seemed that her mother had brought her one-year-old son to visit her over the weekend and he hadn’t recognized her. “My own son and he don’t even know me! I just want to get out of here!”
I thought to myself, so many things to explore. Where do I start? Of course, just start where she is. I encouraged her to go on.
The rest came pouring out in a deluge of emotional self-pity. “No one understands me here! Nobody listens! Nobody cares!” We continued talking and the source of her pain became clearer. God played no role in her life, her boyfriend was doing time, she knows no one who wasn’t using.
Gradually we discovered some resources. She told me about her mother and sister in affectionate terms. And slowly, as she told her story, the emotional storm started to quiet. She became more composed, still weeping, but softly. The situation had clearly drained her. With the passing of the storm, she had no energy left to continue.
As we left the unit, my intern asked the same question I had been asking myself, “What did we accomplish with her?” In my chart I wrote, “Feels heard/humanized.” Was that true? Did my intervention have value for Lynn?
A few days later I ran into Lynn in the dining room. She smiled and said, “I’m going home in a few minutes.” I was delighted at her progress, and wished her well. As she walked out of the room she said quietly over her shoulder, “Thanks for our talk the other day.”
As a chaplain, sometimes it’s hard to tell whether you helped or not. Sometimes you have to read between the lines of seemingly ordinary phrases to discover the difference you made.I made a mental note to pass that along to my intern.