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A Bit of Whiplash
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 and fade.

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 the issue.

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 another.

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 drugs.

Both endure endless questions asked about them.

Both endure hours of chatter from people they don't understand.

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 grimacing faces.

Both are rich—Johnny with potential and Miss Joni with history.

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 them all."
 

 


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