Recently I had been invited to an informational meeting of the Deacon’s Ministry Team of our church. The invitation was prompted by a recent conversation with our minister about my spiritual journey in need of a new spark. My spiritual practice consisted mostly of attending Sunday worship and daily prayer dictated by my mood or my schedule. Lately the stress at the hospital seemed unbearable and I looked forward to my spiritual medicine on Sundays.
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We met in the church library as a circle of seasoned deacons and other church members who like myself were considering participating in this ministry. It would consist of assisting our minister with the sacraments of communion and baptism, as well as some pastoral care for church members who are either homebound or hospitalized. Other duties might include overseeing a smooth Sunday worship and working behind the scenes as greeters, coffee makers and making other last minute adjustments.
The evening’s theme revolved around “doors” that had closed in our lives, while others opened. There were stories about job losses, illnesses and retirement. We shared our common solution of finding new fulfillment in service for God. There was also an unspoken concern about not taking on more than we could handle with our present responsibilities to families or careers.
As for myself, I have shouldered a strenuous medical career for the past thirty years as an anesthesiologist. I had been struggling with the ever-increasing demands on the doctor-patient relationship. My colleagues and I sometimes have felt pushed to the edge of compromise of patient safety. It requires constant vigilance and an attitude of defense to maintain the standard of medicine we were taught. The field of medicine I had chosen for humanitarian purposes was changing into a profit-based business, where I often felt that I functioned as a depersonalized non-entity, juggling endless schedules. There was a huge void in my primary interest to act as a caring human being who loves to comfort people in need.
I longed for a place where I could serve and heal with a heart on God’s terms. If the practice of modern medicine would preclude me from functioning as a humane healer maybe I could find a niche in a more spiritual environment.
These were my thoughts at the meeting and I bounced home with a new sense of purpose. We were encouraged to pray about it and return in two weeks with our decision. I was so excited that I missed a good night’s sleep. I drove to the hospital extra early the next morning to see all the children preoperatively that were scheduled for day-surgery. It is a difficult assignment, pressured to get the children to the Operating Room on time. Any child who has a complicated medical history compounded by anxious parents can take a huge chunk of precisely allocated time.
Such was the case with Benjamin, a two year old with such a rare form of bone marrow cancer that I had to look up the implications for anesthesia in a textbook of uncommon diseases. In his short little life he already had several bone marrow biopsies, aggressive chemotherapy, steroid therapy, and several operations on other organs. This sounded complicated. When I walked into the room a young looking couple huddled in the corner by the window watching the first morning sun on the river. They were holding a small blue bundle in their arms. The mother’s face was a long stretch of worry with a faint smile that tried to stay open despite the next obstacle in her baby’s fight for life.
As I introduced myself, I immediately sensed that she had many concerns but she knew how to quietly endure my routine inquiry to provide the information I needed. They diligently answered my questions about the baby’s last food intake, allergies, recent colds and previous anesthetic history. Having studied the case history before I met the parents, I was quite aware of the challenges and kept my questions curtailed. While we were talking the baby took me in quietly with the same big brown eyes as the parents and didn’t cry. Dad also had some questions but waited politely for his turn. There were several issues; the baby already had an indwelling intravenous catheter used for chemotherapy.
Mom wanted us to use it to start the anesthesia with some intravenous medication. This is not our usual way to anesthetize a two year old, which normally inhales an anesthetic gas given with a mask. But I could find no reason not to consider her option. More difficult to honor was her request that the baby would be put to sleep while in her arms. This might present a problem for my assistant staff. I knew they would insist on placing the baby on the operating room table with all the monitoring devices attached. There were other issues about the recovery room and medications that might be used.
After we had reached a satisfactory mutual understanding how we might proceed safely and keep everyone happy at the same time, it was time for closure. I lingered to express my empathy for how difficult it must be to take care of such a sick infant with so many special needs and my admiration for what they had already shouldered to get this far. Prompted by a sincere curiosity, I innocently asked if they had any other children. The parents proudly announced that they had six other children. I fell into an incredulous silence. I was struck with awe and respect and immediately thought that I would never be able to endure such a burden. I just didn’t want to move but somehow to communicate comfort, courage and hope even with my silence.
I will never know what exactly prompted their momentary response. Both parents looked me straight in the eye and asked me if we could pray together. We huddled our three heads together around the baby, six arms on six shoulders and all took a turn to ask God to help us through this day and to take care of this precious sick child. There was a soft warm darkness between our heads and with the child on Mom’s shoulder and God’s presence palpable amongst us, we all felt safe and protected and ready to take the next step.
Benjamin was peacefully anesthetized in Mom’s arms and woke up in her arms after successful surgery.
I thought about my invitation to the ministry of pastoral care and realized that I had just stepped up to the plate. God in his graceful way had expanded my job description with a powerful reminder that God is my ultimate employer.
Written by Gabriele Roden. Excerpted from Faith At Work Magazine. Used with permission. All rights reserved. Content distributed by WorkLife.org > used for non-profit teaching purposes only.