Over the past few months, my classmates who have had their shadowing experiences already have vocalized sub-ideal experiences. I was able to write off many of their specific gripes as clearly non-applicable to me (“feeling awkward about praying” – big deal; suck it up and learn from the experience; or, “not getting to do anything” – listening to someone talk about their lives through the lens of their healthcare has yet to lose its novelty for me). But still, friends of mine cautioned me to stop hyping up the experience (as I hype up many experiences, and come to learn that expecting the “best thing ever in the whole world” is almost always going to result in sub-“best thing ever in the whole world” – even experiences that are very positive. Expectations management is key.
At 4:30 today, my shadowing partner and I arrived at our designated spot to meet the chaplain with whom we’d be tagging along. Nobody was there. 5 minutes pass. 10 minutes. 15. Coping mechanisms kicked in: I wasn’t excited for this, I told myself. It wasn’t going to be that influential. It wasn’t a big deal. Whatever “take-home points” there were going to be – I already knew them. I could go home early. Yeah. That.
Down the hall shuffled a white-haired woman, a cross dangling upon her chest, clipboard in hand. “Was I supposed to have students today?” she asked, her face reddening. “I didn’t prepare anything!”
We assured her that we hadn’t been waiting long – that she didn’t need to do anything special, that we just wanted to soak up whatever we could from whatever she was going to do this particular afternoon. She told us, repeatedly, how embarrassed she felt – but before long, she began to appreciate that we were legitimately as open-minded and “expectation-less” as we said we were.
There had been two consults called in that day. The chaplain would visit them and ask if she could bring in us medical students to observe.
Then, it became real. This was really going to happen. With no conscious effort, I readjusted my expectations. I had specific goals I wanted to get out of this: 1) see ways in which people express their need to discuss their spiritual wellness; 2) see how a spiritual minister contributes, if at all, to a person’s awareness of those needs, if they’ve not yet surfaced; 3) ask questions, later, of this chaplain about these two priorities if I’ve not been able to observe these things myself. Modest, reasonable, specific. Perfect.
We went to see the first woman, a congestive heart failure patient, who graciously accepted us all into her room. As my colleague and I stepped into the room, I met by a forceful gush of odor. The odor of sickness. I paused, accepted its presence, and continued to enter – mindful of control over even the slightest crinkle of my nose. This was my life now. I stepped closer.
V. looked about 95 years old – though I’m absolutely useless at age-estimation. She looked frail, almost wasting away beneath the hospital sheets. Her lips were parsed, corners of her mouth crusty. Iron-deficiency anemia, I thought to myself. Her fingers were clubbed. I remembered being taught that you can detect lung problems, among other things, that way.
As V. spoke to us, it seemed difficult for her to get her words out. Her breathing was not labored but there was something very strained about it. I felt strained imagining what it would be like to not be able to communicate fluidly. She told us about her family, about her church – it was clear that her church was a key influence in her life, that she derived a sense of purpose from belonging to that particular group. I don’t relate to that myself. People in my life whom I know do experience that relationship haven’t elaborated on it for me; I’ve never asked. I made a mental note to explore this further with a non-stranger so that, when no longer in the role of a passive observer, I’d be able to be more effective.
Before we left, the chaplain asked V. if she wanted her to pray. The chaplain laid her hands over V’s clubbed, bent fingers. Her prayer contained both deliberately religious and non-religious, spiritual themes – energy, intention. I saw the corners of V’s closed eyes lift up, her cracked lips hopeful. She was peaceful.
My eyes watered. I felt guilty that I was so affected, knowing how many times I would be moved to moisture in this hospital.
I realized that I no longer noticed the smell in the room.
Our next patient was likely in her early 60s, recovering from a post-surgical infection. Her husband sat by her side. He looked more tired than she did, as he detailed the chronology of events leading to her infection. My classmate and I looked at one another knowingly – we both so desperately wanted to know what microbe had infected her, what drugs she’d been on, and then go rehearse their mechanisms of action and known toxicities – and were self-amused at our mutual appreciation for how inappropriate that would be. We stood silently.
The chaplain, intent to make specific teaching points, asked the woman whether there were any “lessons” she’d want budding physicians in training to know about. As the woman responded, the chaplain “summarized” the teaching point (totally unnecessary) – and I wondered whether this couple felt empowered to know that they were teaching us and serving as tremendous resources, which is how I justified the awkwardness the chaplain was imposing – that maybe it wasn’t awkward, maybe it was an effective device. I don’t think it would have been effective for me in the patient’s role – but I appreciated that everyone has different things that appeal to them. As the woman shared specific encounters, the chaplain pared it down to a single-word, rote adjective: “compassionate,” “caring.” The couple echoed the words, and agreed with the cursory paraphrase. I just wanted to hear them talk forever without being pared down to a list of adjectives that in no way add up to the sum of the original details. I appreciated the comparison to the lame, bare-bones notes I’d taken on yesterday’s lectures. Irony.
It was then time to pray. The chaplain took the patient’s hand, who took her husband’s hand. Instinctively, I reached down for his hand – hoping that I wasn’t violating any “rules” as a passive observer -- and my classmate’s on the other side. He completed the circle. I felt like I was a part of something bigger, a moment that would be with this person for a long time – she seemed like the kind of person for whom an experience being prayed for by the hospital chaplain in the “big city” would be a big deal. I didn’t relate to that, but appreciated it was a privilege to witness this woman's experience. As similar themes of energy and hope and balance were added to the circle through the chaplain’s words, I watched the woman’s face – her rosy cheeks lifted in a hopeful plea, the corners of her eyes similarly lifted with delight. Her lips were parted, and I saw her mouthing the same phrase over and over after each line of prayer.
My eyes got watery again. But this time, I didn’t feel guilty.