By Chaplain Norris Burkes
One of the Bible's most recognizable quotes comes
from the author of Ecclesiastes who wrote that there is
"a time to every purpose under the heaven; a time to be
born, and a time to die."
In my job as a hospital chaplain, I work on both ends of
these "times." In the Special Care Nursery, I work with
the parents of premature babies who came before their
"time." On the other end of life's journey, I work
with the participants in our Senior Care Center who
struggle for a few more weeks of time.
It brings a bit of whiplash to bounce between these
units that exist on opposite poles of health care.
In the morning, I may be in the Special Care Nursery
with 25-week-old Johnny and in the afternoon, I'll be in
our senior facility talking to Miss Joni—both struggling
to survive, marking each breath as a victory.
Despite the drastic age difference between Johnny and
Miss Joni, they share many similarities.
Both enjoy the gift of life. In the Special Care
Nursery, you can sneak a peek at the gift long before
you are supposed to peek. In the Senior Care Center, I
see the gift long after the wrappings begin to tatter
Both are in a race. For Johnny, getting a head start
doesn't mean he will finish the race early—it means his
race is longer and full of obstacles. For Miss Joni, it
means she sees the finish line, but winning is no longer
Both patients struggle to live just one more day. For
Johnny, one more day suggests the possibility of a
healthy life; but to babies born in a vegetative state,
another day threatens the endless possibility of more.
For Miss Joni, one more day holds out the tease of
Patients in both units struggle for breath; neither sure
why they want another breath, but both sure that they
need another breath. For Johnny, it's a reflexive
action; but for Miss Joni it's a desperate action.
Prayers go up for both patients. Prayers for
Johnny are fervent and purposeful, while prayers for
Miss Joni are less certain, not knowing if they should
be for another day or for a more peaceful departure.
Nurses attend to both patients, but Johnny shares his
nurse with one other baby while Miss Joni shares a
nurse's aide with 10 other patients.
Machines are a concern to both patients. Machines
sustain Johnny's hope, while Miss Joni signs the papers
which declare that she puts no hope in machines that
will only rob her of her dignity.
Cost is a concern for both units. Medical
ethicists debate the ethics of spending so much of the
health care dollar on such heroic efforts to save Johnny
and Miss Joni. They ask if money might be
better spent on saving those who have active lives.
Both are threatened with the assumptions of others that
they have either lived long enough or that the quality
of their lives isn't worth maintaining.
Both are constantly wrapped with blood pressure cuffs,
stuck with countless needles, and pumped with dozens of
Both endure endless questions asked about them.
Both endure hours of chatter from people they don't
Both cry. Johnny can't tell you why he's crying
and Miss Joni can't stop telling you why she's crying.
Both have family who think our staff ought to do more.
Both are attended by staff members who think family
should be visiting more.
Both require their diapers changed—one by nurses with
loving coos and the other by underpaid aides with
Both are rich—Johnny with potential and Miss Joni with
Both face the possibility of death every day. If
it comes for Johnny, it will inspire the grief that
naturally follows the loss of such potential. When it
comes for Miss Joni, it may likely come with a strange
mixture of grief and relief.
All of which serves to remind us that, also from
Ecclesiastes, "the race is neither to the swift nor the
battle to the strong, but time and chance happens to