The names of the people in this story have been changed to protect the innocent. (Which is everybody in it.)
In 1990, I served as a resident chaplain at a local general hospital. The residents took turns being on call for the weekend. Sometimes the weekends were uneventful, but some weekends were filled with patients and family going struggles, pain, sorrow, and death. This would be one of those weekends to the extreme.
I was called to the unit that treated patients with AIDS because the sister of the patient (Sue) wanted to talk to me. She wanted to tell me about her family and ask for my help bringing her brother back to Jesus. Besides herself who was pentecostal she said her family consisted of her mother (Marie) who was a lapsed Catholic because she divorced and remarried without the church’s consent, a brother (Bobby) who was close to his mother but had not completely rejected Christianity, another brother (Bill) who was a faithful catholic and the head coach of the Catholic high school football team, and the brother who was sick and dying of complications due to AIDS. His sister also included a “friend” of her brother (Bruce) who came into his life after he had contracted AIDS. This sister did not include Bruce as part of the family, but had forgiven him and her brother (Jim) for their lifestyle.
Help bring him back to Jesus, Sue asked of me. How would you respond to this request? Keep in mind that Jim had clearly expressed that he was an atheist before his current condition. Jim didn’t open his eyes and barely responded to questions or commands with movement or expression. With his lungs filling up with fluid, he was expected to die at any moment. He did seem to grimes when Sue would read from the Bible or “preach” at him. Help bring him back to Jesus, she asked.
Was it my job as a chaplain to “bring him back to Jesus”? A chaplain is always supposed to respect the patients belief system. In this case it was my job to help him die peacefully. With this family doing that was interesting to say the least. Marie had rejected him because of his lifestyle and wasn’t sure if she was okay with being there when he died. Bill was afraid any association with his brother would be bad for his career. Bobby would come in the room, but he would not get close or talk to Jim even though he said he accepted his life choices and embraced Bruce as a member of Jim’s family. You already have an idea of what Sue was like. And then there was Jim’s nurse and doctor. His doctor wanted to respect Jim’s wishes to not receive morphine no matter how much pain he would have. His nurse, who had come to know him personally, didn’t want to see Jim suffer and wanted the doctor to ignore Jim’s wishes and ease his suffering.
As the chaplain on call, I did not know Jim before this weekend, and he did not know me. For me to talk to him would only be confusing. So my job, my ministry was to Jim without being in direct contact with him. I needed to be sure the staff was treating him according to his wishes. I also needed to help the family understand the seriousness of Jim’s condition and how they could be present for him. Sue needed to be encouraged to give Jim time to rest, and she needed to be assured that her Jesus was holding Jim and her in his hands. Bobby needed to feel more comfortable about getting close to his brother and face his fears of health consequences. Marie needed to be able to put aside her relationship with the church to be in the same room as her sons. Bill needed to put his career goals secondary to his relationship with Jim. Bruce needed to feel that he could gently assert himself as Jim’s life partner. There was too much else going on to be worried too much about the doctor and nurse as long as Jim’s wishes were followed. There would be a later time to support the nurse in her grief.
I began to work on these things on Saturday. I was unsuccessful. Jim continued to live through the night. I returned to the unit on Sunday to continue my ministry to Jim and his family. It seemed as though my work didn’t bear any fruit again. Jim continued to live through the night again. Monday morning came, and as I was sitting with my fellow resident chaplains explaining my failure, I was called to Jim’s room.
When I arrived I was amazed at what I saw. Everyone from the family was there. Each in turn told Jim they loved him and that he could let go. Everyone seemed to accept Bruce sitting by Jim’s side while he held his hand. I stood in the doorway for what seemed to be an eternity, but was actually about twenty minutes as Jim took his last breathes surrounded by his family.
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