As a pastor, I have had many opportunities to visit local hospitals. As a part of my seminary training, I even spent 3 months as a hospital chaplain intern. I know that for some, hospitals can be unsettling or uncomfortable, but this is not true for me. I have stood by bedsides of patients in physical pain; I have sat with families in ICU waiting rooms, anxiously waiting news about their loved ones in critical condition. I have prayed with people in the emergency room and read Scripture to patients recovering from surgery.
I learned this week, however, that it is a different experience to be an actual patient in the hospital. Thanks to severe rib pain (probably caused by my baby, 32 weeks en utero, kicking those ribs or my diaphragm getting stuck under said ribs), I went to the ER yesterday afternoon. A dear co-worker accompanied me. I’m no stranger to the emergency room, but I’ve never been admitted to the hospital. That changed last night after an inconclusive ultrasound (likely due to the fact that I was in such pain and couldn’t hold still!). My doctor recommended I stay overnight and have a second ultrasound this morning.
My stay at the hospital was short compared to the congregants I often visit who have more complicated issues. Still, I experienced first hand the things that I’d only heard about – it’s hard to get good sleep while in the hospital, due to light and noise outside your door AND the nurse waking you at 3 a.m. to take vitals. Severe pain, especially when the doctor can’t give you any medication (while waiting for a procedure) is stunningly distracting and exhausting and plain hard. I have a deeper respect for the people I know who suffer from severe chronic pain that no doctor has been able to effectively treat. Their courage to carry on in the midst of the pain is beautiful.
And I guess that’s why I’m blogging about this experience. As a pastor, I see a lot of pain in the lives of others. I feel compassion for that pain, and I offer prayers for that pain. But, without having experienced any kind of debilitating pain myself, it was hard to relate to what I was seeing as I stood by hospital bedsides and waited in ICU waiting rooms. I only got a taste of the kind of pain and suffering that gets one admitted to the hospital. I only got a taste of the frustrations of being stuck in a hospital bed – the drudgery, the exhaustion, the endless waiting. That taste, even though it came at an inconvenient moment, still offered its own gifts.
I don’t know how or even if this experience will change my pastoral bedside manner as I visit congregants in hospitals. I still don’t know what it’s like to spend multiple days in a white, sterile room with the television playing to cut the boredom. But, I hope the taste shapes deeper empathy and compassion in me and perhaps even humility as I make hospital calls. After all, I’m not an expert on pain. All I can do is come alongside a patient and gently remind him or her that God is present in the pain. It’s up to them to teach me what that promise actually means. My faith in that promise was tested at the height of my pain, but the knowledge of the promise kept me going too. And so God’s presence is a promise upon which I continue to stand, whether or not my ribs hurt.
Now, to see what childbirth will teach me about God’s presence in pain… .
Rachel Young is the associate pastor of spiritual formation at Clear Lake Presbyterian Church, in Houston, Texas. She is married to Josh, who also serves on staff at Clear Lake Presbyterian as the director of contemporary worship and media.