‘I had open heart surgery, and I’m doing really well. Will hopefully be discharged soon. But, you see, I’m afraid.”
“What are you afraid of?” I ask.
“Not of dying — I’ve beat cancer seven times. I’m not afraid of dying. I’m afraid of being imprisoned. I woke up this morning and felt like I was in prison. I actually imagined bars around my bed. I have no control of my life. I can’t eat on my own. I can’t go to the bathroom on my own. I can’t even get out of bed. I have no control.”
This was just one powerful interaction I had while interning as a hospital chaplain last summer.
It was already around 8:30 p.m., towards the end of a long on-call shift (I was on-call from 1 to 9). It had been fairly quiet though, and I was mentally getting ready to go home when I had gotten the call from the charge nurse on one of the cardiology floors that William was looking for some spiritual support. The nurse told me, a 24-year-old Orthodox rabbinical student, that William was a 60-year-old Roman Catholic man.
Somehow I had few reservations spiritually attending to a Roman Catholic man. Perhaps because I consider myself cosmopolitan, liberal New Yorker — “it’s all the same!” many of my patients would say. Perhaps because two of my grandparents are Roman Catholic and I have always felt a special connection to that faith tradition. Not to mention the stellar multi-faith training I received by my mentors at the hospital.
William made an effort to sit up straight when talking to me. It actually took him a few minutes to do so, but it seemed important to him that he not be lying down while we spoke. In the Jewish tradition one stands up when a great rabbi enters the room. And while he probably did not have that intention in mind, I was immediately thrust into the position of having-been-stood-up-for for the first time in my life.
I was in this room — in this hospital, in fact, on a mission. On paper, I was fulfilling my hours in order to complete the unit of Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) I am required to do for rabbinical school. But I was really here to provide support and love to this man in perhaps one of his most difficult and darkest hours. I felt like it had all come down to this. Everything I have been taught — years and years of Jewish and religious day school and camp education — were all building up to these moments when a patient in the hospital bed calls out to me in his hour of need, when he feels “imprisoned,” “trapped” and alone. This moment is my lifelong mission.
Our conversation ranged from his sharing his fears and anxieties about being trapped in the hospital, to my offering him wisdom from the Jewish tradition, to even our shared interest in music. “You actually reminded me of a Jewish saying, I told him: ‘The whole world is a narrow bridge, and the main point is to not fear.’ So much of our lives is hanging on by something so narrow, so flimsy. And our job is to try and not be afraid and to cross that bridge to get to the next point in our life’s journey.” I think — I sincerely hope — this thought comforted him.
William asked me to share with him a band that has helped me get through the hard times. My answer? Green Day. I find that these songs frame a lot of my spiritual-religious thinking, as well as my life’s journey. I have fond memories of sitting in the dorm room of my nearly ultra-Orthodox yeshiva when I was 18, secretly blasting Green Day lyrics in my own little act of rebellion against the atmosphere in which I found myself. And while I rarely listen to Green Day anymore, the band will always hold that place in my heart of getting me through the times that I felt trapped and imprisoned. For when my spirit was in a spiritual cardiac unit.
Specifically, this interaction recalled for me the song “21 Guns” (2008, “21st Century Breakdown”). In this song in particular, Billy Joe Armstrong, Green Day’s lead vocalist, describes in poignant terms feeling a loss of control, like there’s nowhere to turn, faith is tenuous, and there is no end in sight. There’s no firm resolution; he simply acknowledges the chaos, perhaps in a sense of self-surrender to the world around him.
That is what I think William may have been struggling with. It is certainly something I struggle with.
In my experience, this is what chaplaincy is all about. Drawing upon my own life experiences in identifying with the human in front of me. This breaks down the barriers and enables us to truly connect and transcend to a higher spiritual place — whether that place is Catholic, Jewish, secular or all of the above.
The primary charge for doctors is “do no harm.” While that mandate seems infinitely easier for a chaplain — at the end of the day, no one’s physical life is in our hands — I also walked the halls of the hospital knowing that, to my own incredibly humbling disbelief, people’s spiritual lives are in my hands in the moment that I am called.
I wear a yarmulke every day, a religious symbol of my specific faith. But besides my yarmulke I wore a different religious symbol at the hospital — my hospital badge, which read “pastoral care.” One colleague of mine, an atheist pediatric palliative care MD, compared the badge to the Cross. The religious salience of that badge resonated. I was part of a team of people engaged in God’s work — creation, spirit, life, cessation of life. Then, somehow, I went back to school and occupied my days studying the intricacies of Jewish law and theology. I am missing my badge.
Daniel Atwood is a second-year rabbinical student at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah in Riverdale.