I BEGIN my split-ministry at St. Elizabeths Hospital in Anacostia. Father McCormack, the Rev. Aist and I meet to plan the ecumenical Thanksgiving service. We agree to hold it in the Synagogue.
My notes show that last year our collection was given to SOME (So Others Might Eat). I remember being touched to see the patients' pennies dropping into the collection plate. We agree this year, in light of the Cambodian situation and the Year of the Child, to give our proceeds to UNICEF. Monday
A new admission: a young man. I am always a little suprised to find young people in the hospital who are veterans of numerous previous hospitalizations and who seem to take it for granted (almost like a life-style). He plans to spend at least a month at St. E's: "The food's good, I have a nice place to sleep, I can get myself together," etc.
He asks about reading material. I tell him about the patients' library and agree to send him some pamphlets from my office to tide him over till he gets grounds privileges.
I stop at Georgetown Hospital on the way home to visit a patient on the St. E's ward. She has had her surgery and is still asleep. I write a note offering best wishes for her recovery in the name of our congregation. Tuesday
It's Tuesday, so this must be NIH. I start as usual by going to the computer, punch in my code and go through my list of patients to see who is still in. For those who were seriously ill last Friday, I call up on the computer the nursing notes so I won't walk in cold turkey, not knowing what has happened over the weekend.
I am grateful for the nurses who take the time to note the little, but so important, items such as: "seems nervous about impending tests." The medications listed don't mean as much to me. Those flags about feelings are invaluable.
I return a long-distance call from a young woman, a former patient, and reach her mother. SHE SEEMS EMBARRASSED. "our daughter has just been discharged from another hospital. They could not help her. She has been calling all around the country. She was very fond of you; I hope it won't bother you." "No, I will be glad to talk with her. I will call again." Chaplain Kerney, chief of our department, pops his head in; we talk about the call.
My new patients are usually surprised to find a Jewish chaplain. Some talk about their hometown rabbis. I have heard some great stories! Wednesday
Back at St. Elizabeths. The printer is as good as his word. The galley proof is beautiful. I tell him so and offer a special invitation to attend our service. He politely informs me that he will be vacationing in Hawaii.
Another new admission. It's a few days old. I am annoyed until I find out that the patient was listed as "religion unknown." He was very upset and not about to answer any questions upon admission. I go over to the unit. I decide to read his chart before introducing myself.
One of the nursing assistants is on the telephone ordering a taxi. I hear the name of the party who is to take the cab. It is the same last name as the patient's. It must be his mother. I rush out to introduce myself and talk with her. She is about my age. Her shoulders have that sag of despair that I have come to recognize since I have begun to work in hospitals. In reply to my question, "Can you tell me anything that might help me to work with your son?" her eyes flash with unfocused anger, as if to say, "If I knew, do you think I would be standing here?" Her words are much milder: "What can I tell you? This is his 11th hospitalization. He just stopped taking his medication and disappeared."
The cab pulls up. She is going to Union Station. I wonder, as the cab pulls away, how many times she has ridden home from hospitals she never even heard of before the call came. I notice that she has learned to take along a thick book to pass the time. He does not mention her in our conversation.
I call around until I find a local rabbi to speak at the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial service in January. Dick worked on voter registration in Mississippi during the '60s and met Dr. King several times. Thursday
Back at NIH. The first name and condition I always check these days is of a lady who is dying. She is one of my oldtimers. I have known her since shortly after I came on board at NIH. She has gone through the whole cycle of hope, fear, pain, anger and now resignation. We had talked at length about her decision to stop the round of surgery and the other therapies. What a difference there is between the phrase "quality of life" and its personification in a flesh-and-blood human being. A new strength seemed to come when she made up her mind to let nature take its course.
She is fortunate: One local son is a faithful daily visitor, the other comes on weekends from out of town, and there is a "boy friend" (she is a widow).
Today is a special day. Her rabbi, a man who started his career in her congregation in California, is flying down from New York to see her and she is thrilled. I am pleased. They share so much, having kept in touch for 25 years. I pop in to greet my colleague, then leave them together for what I expect will be their last visit. (It was).
I place my long-distance call. "Yes, I remember our talks at NIH. Did you get the tape I sent? No? Sorry." We talk about death. She asks what my favorite prayer is. I repeat it from memory. She asks for a copy and I agree to send it. She asks if she can call again. "Of course." "Take care" are my last words as I hang up. It sounds hollow. I like better the words I use in my note accompanying the prayer: "I hope the enclosed will help you as you rebuild the broken pieces of your life." That's real.
Lunch with a young woman who heard that I was looking for volunteers to visit with out-of-town patients. I introduce her to Chaplains Paine and White and Father Linehan. After lunch, we take a walk and discuss our contract: just friendship, and no terminal cases. She seems like a fine, caring young woman. I will call her.
Returning from rounds, I find a note from a former patient who has come in for a clinic visit. To me, it means that our time together has established a relationship. Friday
Split day today: morning at St. E's, afternoon at NIH. Two Sabbath services.
First I pick up my volunteers from the Hebrew Aid Circle: Mrs. Katz, who has been coming to St. E's for more than 45 years, and Mrs. Abrams, a 14-year veteran. Two little old ladies, surrounded by shopping bags full of clothes for the patients' apparel shop and food for our patients' brunch. I smile at the thought that Mrs. Katz started coming to St. E's when I was 4 years old.
I am also curious to know how Mesdames Katz and Abrams will react to our guest preacher this morning. Rabbi Jan Kaufman is one of the few women rabbis in America. I am not sure they believe that she is really a rabbi. Still, they agree to come out of the kitchen and into the synagogue to hear her speak. They never do that for me.
Friday afternoon: NIH. I call on all the new patients, tell them about the 4:30 service. It's interesting to watch people's reactions. It is one thing to see the time and place listed in the patient activities bulletin, and another to have the rabbi invite you face to face. To some, it often seems to me, it is like meeting your dentist at a party when you are six months past your checkup date.
It is a special service today. A patient is leaving. Her parents have come to services with her faithfully every Friday for a year. We have become very fond of each other. On one occasion when I was out of town, the father officiated. Today he brings a camera. It's more like a graduation than a discharge. The other patients who have come to know the family share in the tender awkardness of the parting.
I have a speaking engagement tonight, at a senior citizen village. Their program chairman had been a patient at NIH. It will be strange to be back in a conventional pulpit.
I miss the intimacy of my small synagogue at St. E's, the chapel at NIH. The eyes are different, too. I suddenly realize why: We are strangers.
I speak about my chaplaincies. I invite these people who have come out on the "plus side" of life to lend a helping hand to those whose life experiences have been a "minus." I ask those who are interested to come forward and take the packets of information I have brought from St. E's. My wife overhears one person whisper to another, "Don't commit yourself." I understand. Successful volunteering, I have found, is like swimming: Either you can or you can't.