The Silent Gang Member

By JIM NICHOLS

This patient room was strategically positioned near the nurses’ station. Closed circuit television cameras made the room visible to the nurses. The first time I visited the ventilated patient was surrounded by several hospital workers, so I retreated to read the patient chart. There had been a car wreck as the young man had lost control, hit the windshield and then, as the car rolled, was thrown partly through the driver’s window. He had suffered significant facial injuries, at the very least. The medical description had much detail about the injuries, how many different physicians had worked on him, detail about removing fragments of glass and grass from the injuries.

When I returned to the less crowded room later, I found that he was heavily bandaged all over his head. One eye was either missing or sewn shut and the other was closed. He moved periodically as if to get up but could not move far because his arms were tied down to the bed. His body was covered by sheets except for his heavily tattooed arms. Not knowing whether even to speak, I simply stood and observed and returned to the nurses’ station to gather my courage.  

I returned the next day and had the first of multiple “conversations” with him. I hedge on that term because he never said one word. Initially, I told him (truthfully) that I did not know how well he could hear me nor what I might be able to do for him. Nevertheless, I said, I am one of the people circulating in and out of his room and I would see him regularly. At one point as I was leaving, he squeezed my hand with his. 

As the days went by, I continued to stop by and only a minimum amount of recognition of me occurred. There was always a staff person sitting by his bed, sometimes reading a book. When I asked about this, I was told that he has a 24-hour sitter, a result of concern about his behavior and what he might do.

On a subsequent day, I encountered the patient walking quite freely down the hall, accompanied by a staff person, an IV pole, and an oxygen tank. At first, I was so surprised that I was not sure he was the same person. He now had one eye opened and looked at me. I stopped and expressed my happiness to see him up; I made a meager attempt at humor by noting I had no idea how tall he was since I had only seen him lying down. He smiled at me. He still said nothing.

On another day I had a conversation with an older chaplain. He explained that he had had some success in dealing with gang members and encouraged me to continue my relationship with the patient if I could. I remember him saying, “If I may give you some hints, I generally try to ask people like this if they are happy. Of course, I don’t come right out and ask them “Are you happy?” I ask them about their lives, what they do, for example, and then eventually ask them “Do those things make you happy?” They usually will say “No” and then I can continue the discussion from there. You can do that as well as I can.”

I pondered how to address that since I had never gotten one word from him. I am embarrassed to say that only then did I have the revelation that, because of his facial injuries, he had his jaw wired shut and a ventilation tube in his trachea. Of course, he could not talk!

Without acting totally stupid I confirmed this with the nurse, and she added that he has a tablet he writes on. “Try getting him to write to you.”

Returning to his room, I noted for him that he soon would be moved to another room and would have another chaplain. He picked up his tablet and pencil and with awkward first-grade level letters and language wrote verbatim: “Can you help find me found out all who help me the night I came in the hospital so I can thank them and keep them in my prayers? Without them I don’t know where I would be.”

I told him I would do my best, but it was a long list; he nodded. 

I then said to him, “I would like to know how you are different now from four weeks ago (before the wreck). How are you different in your heart and your mind?”

Without using the tablet, he then signed to me with his hands a message that I repeated back to him. “God opened my heart and mind.” Is that correct?

He nodded yes.

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

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