St. Francis of Assisi suggested that, when attempting to be God’s people to others, we should start with human suffering rather than human sinfulness.

Have you ever made a hospital visit to a friend or relative and encountered a law enforcement officer sitting in a chair outside some room on the floor? Though not a common sight for an occasional hospital visitor, it is customary for those who work there. As one might expect, these situations require a clear set of guidelines; hospital workers and law enforcement individuals are well schooled in the appropriate protocols.

The prisoner/patients are handcuffed or otherwise shackled to the bed. There are at least two law enforcement officers involved. One sits in the patient room and does not carry a firearm. The second sits just outside the room and has two firearms. Occasionally when the two switch positions, the outside officer gives both firearms to the one moving out of the room. There is not to be a firearm in the room.

Nurses or other medical people moving into and out of the room frequently remove their identification badges or reverse them so the prisoner cannot read them. Medical workers have strict guidelines as to what information is shared between themselves and patient. Outside visitors are generally not allowed. Individuals contacting the hospital asking if the prisoner is a patient do not receive that information. 

The degree of injury or illness of the prisoner/patient varies as for any hospital patient. Most will be treated and released in order to return to their facility. Sometimes, the condition precludes that option. Indeed, sometimes the patient is approaching death and may even be in an inpatient hospice area. As a reminder, patients officially in a hospice program receive limited “curative” care, but full “palliative” or “comfort” care.

For many years, my wife and I have been part of a weekly ad hoc singing group for individuals in a hospice program associated with a hospital. With the patient’s or family’s consent, the small group enters the rooms and sings two or three familiar hymns. This has been a cumulative powerful experience for us and the other singers. It has also given me a different perspective on the word “prisoner.”

The few times we have encountered a prisoner/patient in a hospice situation have been memorable. Standing next to the bed of a seriously ill person who is shackled to that bed is jarringly ludicrous. We ask if they have any favorite hymns and try to sing their requests. We pray with them and go to the next room, leaving them alone in their room with their unarmed guard. Except for the chains, these individuals seem like every other patient. Time is short for them and they seem to know it.

A related memory involves another hospice patient not bound by metal chains. Seldom are the same patients still in the area two weeks in a row; these patients are near the end of their lives. This particular patient’s timing made her an exception. Toward the end, perhaps only the patients understand what is occurring; it is one of the mysteries of the hospice area.

The first week we encountered her she was wearing a transparent plastic mask over her mouth and nose. Often, patients have a nosepiece to supply oxygen, but this was much more of a covering over her lower face; the need for oxygen probably was more acute. Although the mask was clear, it did somewhat distort her face. Her eyes were open and she carefully watched each of us as we sang. We could not understand her speech well because of the mask, but she did seem to smile and appreciate the singing.

On the subsequent week, her smile and strong eyes met us again. We could see her face directly now because the mask was gone. When we finished singing, she said, “After you left last time, I heard the prisoners singing those same songs down the hall for the next few days.” What a strange comment! We asked her to repeat it and she said the same phrase. Prisoners? We knew of no prisoners on that floor. Apparently, she did.

Her definition of “prisoner” was not limited to law enforcement. She knew the patients in her hospice area were caught in bodies that are worn out, bodies that have lost capacities, bodies that contain souls sought by Satan but guaranteed by faith to God. She understood these prisoners trapped in bodies of decay were singing of their eminent release from those bodies. Perhaps only the prisoners can hear the other prisoners sing. What we had done in the previous week was remind some of the prisoners of songs of faith. They had just sung those songs to each other in prisoner language the rest of the week.

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

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