One of the best things about medical chaplaincy is that it is ecumenical. When I enter a hospital room, the patient and others in the room often ask, “What church are you from?” My response is to tell them where I usually am on a Sunday morning, but then to say, “But when you are a hospital chaplain, you are a chaplain for everyone.” They usually smile at this and seem to relax.

Occasionally, I have been the on call chaplain in the hospital overnight. On this occasion, the medical center in another city had a whole set of chaplains during the day, but from about 11 p.m. on, you were on your own.  There was a room with a bed and sometimes you could sleep a bit until you were called.

The pager went off to call me to a certain floor in the hospital; they wanted to see me at the nurses’ station.  This may not be typical of every hospital, but my experiences are that nurses’ stations during the middle of the night are extremely relaxed places. Not really raucous, but filled with conversations, food, and coffee. The patients are usually asleep, the physicians and other workers are gone, and the nurses keep one another company. They have work to do, but the pace is rather calm until something happens.

When I arrived on the floor, the nurses said there was a certain patient who was awake. She was worried and nervous about something and was requesting a priest to come to see her right away. Historically, that hospital has a Catholic background and funding and, indeed, many of the chaplains are priests. However, these priest/chaplains are on the regular rotation and none of them was there that night—just me.  I said to the nurses, “If she wants a priest, she’s not going to want me.” They implored me saying that they were seriously concerned about that patient and would I just “give it a try.” I said OK. As I walked away from the station, one of them said, “She is a bit eccentric.”

This was a relatively large hospital room. The patient was in bed on the far side of the room and there was a fair amount of distance between us as I knocked and entered the room. I introduced myself. She said nothing, but slowly looked me over. She started at my feet, then my pants, my shirt, and, finally, my face.  She spoke, “You are not a priest, get out of here.” I stated my agreement that I was, indeed, not a priest, but that I thought that, perhaps, we could talk. “Out,” she said.

The nurses apparently expected I might have trouble in there. When I told them that she had thrown me out of the room, they burst into laughter. “Go back in,” they said. “She needs some help.” I explained that she did not want me; she wanted a priest. I used the telephone to call within the hospital on the outside chance that one of the priests was in the building. No luck. I checked the chaplain schedule and it would be 8 a.m. before any priest appeared. “Go back in,” they said. “She needs you.”

I knocked on the door again and entered. “I thought I told you to go away.”  I took a gamble. “The nurses said that you might need to talk to someone and I am the only person available. There will not be a priest in the hospital until 8, and I have left a message for him to come right away. I thought there might be an outside chance that you would like a regular old Protestant prayer.” 

I still was not very close to her bed so she again gave me the long distance once over, from foot to head.  After a long pause, she stuck out her hand toward me to take mine and said, “Oh #$@&%*!, why not?”

Beginning with that prayer that early morning, I visited her several succeeding days and she moved from simply cordial to almost friendly. The priest did come by also, but I was apparently acceptable now too.

A few days later during the daytime, I received a request from a nurse to visit with her in place of the priest. She was due to have an uncomfortable procedure and was downstairs in the procedure waiting room. She was nervous. 

“I didn’t ask for you; I asked for the priest.”

“The priest is with another patient right now. He said he will come soon, but he asked me to come see you meanwhile.”

She was fidgety as we visited, not very talkative, but rather pensive. Eventually, she said, “You know, you’re OK. It’s too bad you aren’t a Catholic.”

The exchange continued from me. “I have thought about you and me some. I don’t know this for sure, but I have the feeling that someday you and I will be in heaven together.”

She was good with pauses and another one occurred here. With only a hint of a smile she replied, “I’m not so sure about that.”

The real priest arrived. I greeted him, smiled at her, wished her good day, and left.  I never saw her again after that visit.

Jim Nichols is a retired Abilene Christian University biology professor and current medical chaplain. 

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