“The disciples came to Jesus and said, ‘Send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.’ Jesus said to them, ‘They need not go away; you give them something to eat.’ They replied, ‘We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.’” (Matthew 14:15-17)
August 3, 2014
Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Fr. Robert deLeon, CSC
While heartier souls may spend these summer months outdoors in the swelter of the burning sun, I’m taking refuge in the dark indoors, cuddling with an air conditioner and a good book. Thus it is that I share with you a recently read collection of biographical sketches that touched my heart while kindling flashes of déjà vu. Entitled “I Wasn't Strong Like This When I Started Out: True Stories of Becoming a Nurse,” editor Lee Gutkind awakened my memory as I read. Let a blurb from Amazon Books provide an introduction:
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“This collection of true narratives reflects the dynamism and diversity of nurses, who provide the first vital line of patient care. Here, nurses remember their first [needle] ‘sticks,’ first births, and first deaths, and reflect on what gets them through long, demanding shifts, and keeps them in the profession. The stories reveal many voices from nurses at different stages of their careers: One nurse-in-training longs to be trusted with more ‘important’ procedures, while another questions her ability to care for nursing home residents. An efficient young emergency room nurse finds his life and career irrevocably changed by a car accident. A nurse practitioner wonders whether she has violated professional boundaries in her care for a homeless man with AIDS, and a home care case manager is the sole attendee at a funeral for one of her patients. What connects these stories is the passion and strength of the writers, who struggle against burnout and bureaucracy to serve their patients with skill, empathy, and strength.” (www.amazon.com)
An exclamation point—that’s what this book was, insisting that I, too, had learned so much since facing the first-time challenges that are uniquely those of a hospital chaplain. That 1980 summer in Clinical Pastoral Education at Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, DC, provided me many firsts: the first death I ever witnessed; the first baptism of a dying child; the first time I embraced bitterly grieving parents; the first of a dozen funeral services I conducted for newborns that singular summer.
A year later, summer 1981, I began a year’s continuing training at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, there encountering AIDS for the first time—along with the stunned world community of health care professionals for whom this suddenly emerging malady meant death, quick and sure. I sat at the bedside of a young gay man—by profession a female impersonator—as he died alone from AIDS.
Indeed, this book of nursing sketches became a rare gift, inviting me to reflect on my own professional journey out of high school teaching and into hospital chaplaincy. When I’d finished the book, its title became a humble confession of where my own life’s journey had taken me—“I Wasn't Strong Like This When I Started Out.”
In the gospel passage we hear today, “The disciples came to Jesus and said, ‘Send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.’ Jesus said to them, ‘They need not go away; you give them something to eat.’ They replied, ‘We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.’” (Matthew 14:15-17)
Surely Jesus was toying with the disciples when he suggested they feed the crowd with so little. Just as surely is he toying with us when, in desperation, we may call for help from heaven when a task or a challenge seems beyond our ability. Twinkle in his eyes as his lips form a gentle smile, Jesus seems to say, “Stop your whining and get to work! I’ll be with you all the way. I’ll be the strength in your hands and the words in your mouth.”
Albany Medical Center, the hospital at which I presently serve, is also a major educational institution. Under the auspices of its medical college (founded in 1839), new doctors and allied health care professionals annually carry newly minted diplomas to the bedsides of the ailing. Included under the hospital’s education umbrella is the Clinical Pastoral Education program for the training of chaplains. It’s been my joy to be affiliated with this program and its students for the past 12 years. Serving as mentor to a new flock, I’m continually amazed and humbled at what I’ve learned, at where God has taken me.
Early one morning in mid-June, I was summoned to the bedside of a dying man in the surgical ICU. As I was leaving the office to attend to him, Julie, only 4 days into her summer program with us, asked to come along. Arriving at the room, precaution signs indicated the need for gowns and gloves. Demonstrating for Julie how I don a gown and tie it without choking or hanging myself, she did likewise before a hurried discussion of glove size. I tossed her 2 “mediums” before we entered the room.
Twelve red-eyed, sobbing family members greeted us. Introducing Julie and myself, she took her quiet place at the foot of the bed as the rest surrounded us, the patient’s wife briefly telling the story—surgery for cancer, then a sudden stroke, now brain death. She and her assembled family wanted Fritz to receive the Church’s blessing before they removed him from life supports and gave him back to God.
Hands joined all around, we prayed the Lord’s Prayer and the Hail Mary, its concluding phrase—“now and at the hour of our death”—marking this singular moment. After anointing Fritz with the holy oil, I invited everyone to trace the Sign of the Cross on his forehead.
Julie and I left the room, gratitude in my heart—“I Wasn't Strong Like This When I Started Out.” Smiling at her, I prayed that, come summer’s end, this might be her own confession.