Minister's Corner: A plan bigger than us

Chaplain Bill Simpson
Supervisor of pastoral/spiritual care

As I donned my PPE (personal protective equipment), I glanced into the patient’s room and immediately checked to make sure I was in the right room. The patient was supposedly a COVID+ male in his early 90s, but what I saw didn’t match what I expected. He was sitting up in bed looking through his phone, fully alert and looking relatively healthy. He seemed anything but a stereotypical elderly COVID patient.

As we visited, he told me of his family and that he and his wife had been married for over 60 years. She was at home with a milder case of COVID, and though he never used the term, it also seemed he was her full-time caregiver. It was less about what he said than it was how he said it, but his love and devotion for his wife were overwhelmingly clear.

They were the proud parents of two adult daughters, one local and one out of state. He swiped easily at his phone and showed me a picture of the house one had built. He spoke warmly of “long hours on the road together” traveling to and from horse shows when the girls were younger.

We talked of his illness, too. He’d already battled cancer, and I learned he’d chosen not to be intubated, even if his care required it. It seemed he didn’t want to put himself, or his family, through that. As we finished, I shared a prayer and left with a promise to return Monday.

By Monday morning, things had changed – drastically. He was coughing and struggling to breathe and was unaware of my presence. His condition continued to decline despite every effort. By that afternoon, his condition was grave. His local daughter was en route to the hospital, but his other daughter couldn’t travel because of COVID.

Upon her arrival, I joined his daughter in the waiting room. I knew her father was receiving constant care from staff. Sometime later, we learned her father’s COVID battle was over. There were tears, prayer, conversation about next steps, and deliberation about what to tell her mom and when. She then expressed her thanks and slipped quietly out.

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One Friday morning about ten months later, a local hospice chaplain stopped by to let me know of a family whose mother had been admitted overnight. Her daughters had made the decision to enroll her in hospice care, and they’d mentioned to the chaplain that they knew me.

A little later, I ventured to ICU. Sure enough, the patient was the wife of the gentleman from the summer before. She was non-responsive, but her daughter from out of state was present. We introduced ourselves and I said with a smile, “I know we’ve never met, but I’ve seen a picture of your house.” She paused, then grinned and nodded as I shared how her father had proudly showed me the picture on his phone. “That’s just like him,” she said.

A few minutes later, her sister returned. After renewing our acquaintance, we talked about their mom. Following their dad’s death, her condition had deteriorated considerably. They’d made the difficult decision to transition her to a local nursing home. The night before we gathered, though, her condition had taken a sharp turn for the worse. She wasn’t expected to survive the morning.

Not having heard anything in the meantime, I returned late that afternoon. Her condition, though poor, seemed surprisingly stable. As I concluded my visit a little later, I let her daughters know of the availability of pastoral care overnight and through the weekend. I left not expecting to see them again. Surprisingly, Monday morning, I had a message waiting that the family was anxious to see me. Their mom was still alive.

Upon arriving in the room, I found the out of state daughter at the bedside, right where she’d been almost non-stop. She told how she “happened” to be in town visiting when her mom’s condition had deteriorated. It was, she said, “A divine appointment.”

She then described how the one thing that had haunted her about her father’s death was that he’d died alone. She quickly added, though, that the care her mother had received had shown her those concerns were overstated.

I took the opportunity to share a bit more about her father’s death, explaining I was able to be with her sister because I knew the nurse caring for her dad would be with him through it all. She was deeply touched to know that one of our nurses had cared enough about her dad to be with him as he died.

That afternoon, I “happened” to run into that very nurse and told her about the family. She replied, “Do you suppose they’d want that picture?” When I asked what she meant, she headed down the hall saying, “Come with me.”

I followed her to a nearby conference room where a sign was hanging with a picture of a gowned and gloved hand holding the bare hand of a patient. “That’s his hand,” she said simply. Below the picture was a scripture verse, and on the frame across the top were the words, “No One Dies Alone.”

She explained, “I took that picture for the family, but they left before I got it to them. So instead, I put it in here to remind us how important it is to be with people, especially in the hard times. Do you think they’d want it?”

“Oh, I think so,” was the best I could utter, knowing full well how much it would mean.

I took the picture with me back to the patient’s room where I shared how I’d run into the nurse I’d mentioned earlier. Then I added, “She wanted me to bring you a little something.” As I pulled the picture out from behind me, the daughter exclaimed, “That’s Daddy’s hand!” She burst into tears, then quietly asked, “Is there any way I could meet her?”

Shortly, the nurse who’d cared for her “Daddy” arrived. Even before introductions could be made, they recognized each other and embraced – hugging, smiling and crying together. They spent several minutes together before the nurse had to return to her duties in ICU. Later that afternoon, the patient was transferred back to her nursing home.

Later, the nurse and I discussed how overwhelming it was to realize we were part of something so much bigger than either – or both – of us could ever have orchestrated. That a family member from out of state “happened” to be in town at just the right moment, that the hospice chaplain took time to alert me to the family’s presence, that a picture from nearly a year earlier would have meaning to this family now were all reminders to us of the importance of what we do each and every day.

Every encounter, no matter how routine or unremarkable it might seem at the moment, is an opportunity to make a significant impact on the life of someone else – someone else, no matter who they are, created in the image of God. Though we rarely have the chance to see how meaningful our actions may be, we can be confident that, more often than we know, they truly are.

Each of us have similarly rich opportunities to come alongside others and make a difference. We may never know just how much a kind word, a gentle reply, or some other small gesture might mean, but we can be confident it often means far more than we know.

What a blessed opportunity is ours, if only we’ll respond.