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When I arrived at my first assignment with the Air Force in 1990, I didn’t have much experience in a hospital under my belt.
During the first three-and-a-half years in Wichita Falls, Texas I was introduced to hospital ministry.
I did patient visitation when I was on-call.
On one emergency call I was asked to be with a patient who was dying of AIDS related pneumonia.
His sister and niece were with him as he struggled to breathe and when he took his last breath.
Experiences like this in Texas and in my next duty station near Oxford, England continued to happen as my hospital visitation skills continued to grow.
Following that assignment in England, I moved back to the states where I had been selected to take four units of Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) at Wilford Hall USAF Medical Center.
As our cohort met with our supervisor for a week-long retreat before heading to the hospital, we had discussions about what unit we wanted to be assigned to for the next six months (we would switch to a new unit in January).
I was intrigued by the Mental Health unit thanks to experiences I had during my first assignment and the working relationship that I had developed with the medical and social work folks who worked in the Mental Health clinic.
Pediatric and Neo-natal Intensive care along with Oncology, the Emergency Department, and the Medical/Surgical units were the other options.
Instead of my first choice (inpatient Mental Health), I was assigned to the Emergency Department (ED).
The hospital was a Level One trauma center, and the ED was incredibly busy as it served the local civilian population, military retirees, and military members and their families.
To say that I was overwhelmed at first would be a massive understatement!
There is a tremendous difference from pastoral care in a hospital to pastoral care in the Emergency Department.
When I first walked to the doorway that led from the first floor into the ED, I peeked through the window to see what was going on.
I entered quietly and introduced myself to the Nurse Manager.
She showed me around the department and explained what went on in each room.
She also introduced me to the “bat phone” (yes, it had a Batman figure glued to the top of it!) and told me how it was the first warning that there were trauma patients inbound.
The first time the bat phone went off, the staff kicked into high gear and prepared for the inbound patient.
I was amazed at how the system responded and how the team was ready when the ambulance pulled up and the gurney came in with the patient on it.
As the patient was wheeled into the trauma room, I wasn’t quite sure what to do.
My supervisor had taught us that the chaplain’s place was at the head of the table where we could provide a prayer and comfort to the patient.
Yet as I entered the fray, I couldn’t get to the head of the table!
It was crowded and there were so many pieces of medical equipment in the room along with the doctors, medical technicians, and nurses who were too busy trying to save the patient’s life.
I truly felt lost and out-of-place.
My first thought was how am I ever going to figure out where I needed to be and what I needed to be doing.
As I shared this experience with my supervisor during our first weekly meeting, he smiled and said, you need to make a way to get to the patient’s head.
He also said that it would take time to figure out what all the equipment was and how the process worked in the ED.
As I continued to peek through the window before entering the ED, I would visit with the patients on the gurneys in the hallway and the patients in the Cardiac room.
I also began to listen to the staff as they shared stories with me as we got to know each other.
I also learned the single phrase that the chaplain or anyone for that matter must NEVER utter.
“It sure is quiet here today.”
Every time I said that the bat phone would ring, and we would be knee deep in trauma care.
I think the first time I made that mistake, and the bat phone rang, we had a triple trauma inbound.
After patients had been taken care of and we were able to slow down a bit, the staff (especially the Nurse Manager) said, “didn’t we tell you not to use the “Q” word?
They were smiling and chuckling as they introduced the chaplain to some of the ED lore.
It didn’t take too long for me to stop peering into the window before entering the ED.
Soon I was pushing the door open, ready for what awaited me.
I had become a part of the team.
My place wasn’t at the head of the bed.
Instead, I was passing materials to the staff when no one else had a chance to do that.
I asked the Nurse Manager if she wanted me to answer her cell phone.
In turn, I answered it and helped whoever was calling.
My place was with the young surgeon who had to break the news to a family that their loved one had died on the table.
He couldn’t speak and I supported him and told the family that their loved one didn’t make it despite the heroic efforts of the surgeon and the rest of the team.
I went from being completely out of my comfort zone to being comfortable enough to help the ER nurse years later who was putting an IV in my mom’s arm.
This was a major transformation in my ministry, and I am grateful that God brought me through it.
Michael A. Moore, Chaplain, Lieutenant Colonel, USAF (retired)
Pastor of Carrollton Presbyterian Church in Carrollton, Georgia