Bearing witness

In the face of death, chaplaincy intern Ashley Brown learns the gift of bearing witness.

Helicopter Rescue Flight over the Mountain of Campo Imperatore - Abruzzo - Italy


Trigger warning: This story speaks about the death of a child and abuse.  

I was driving down the interstate, directly underneath the belly of the Life Flight helicopter carrying a baby close to death. A few minutes earlier, I had been eating a slice of greasy pepperoni pizza and staring out the glassy windows of a different hospital cafeteria.

Then, the pager went off and everything changed as I read the Cat-1 trauma alert. A chaplain at a different rural hospital called me and gave me more information. A family friend had dropped a child off at the hospital and left after the intake. The child was in poor shape, being life-flighted from the rural hospital to the children’s Intensive Care Unit.

The pizza grease was still on my chin and my napkin still curled in my hand as I ran to the car and began the ten-minute drive to the children’s hospital, hoping to greet the parent of the baby who was arriving separately.

I wanted to prepare them before they saw their dying child and to allow the medical personnel space to swiftly move the baby from the Heli-pad to the trauma bay.

Beyond the parent, I was probably the only person in the entire world who knew the tragedy playing out overhead in the Life Flight helicopter at that moment on the road. Others in their cars might look up and imagine their own macabre story involving the heroic and successful efforts of a team of surgeons and a new lease on life — just like in the movies.

But life isn’t like the movies. Sometimes, life ends and people do terrible things.

The next ten hours of my life were horrible.

In between the chaos of trying to save the baby’s life, the person allegedly responsible for injuring the baby showed up and tried to get access to the parent and child. They kept calling the parent, over and over again. The child’s other parent showed up and passed out, then refused to stay and left.

Thankfully hospital security protocol at the children’s hospital was impeccable. I had only been a chaplain for 3 weeks — situations like this one weren’t outlined in our protocol handbook.

The parent and I moved with the child from the trauma bay to radiation to a waiting room to the ICU room. There were police interviews, social worker interviews, fear, and sadness. It was a hospital heartbreak tour. Each room we moved to led to hope: Maybe this is the magical room of healing for this baby.

Until, finally, we stopped moving rooms. Nurses, diligent in their care, averted their eyes as they moved about the ICU room and tended to the sweet, tiny body covered in wires and bruises.

I made the parent a bed next to their dying baby. Adult pillows were tight in ICU, but I snuck an extra one along with a blanket, a Gatorade and a phone charger.

Why does no one warn you how calm hell can be?

I didn’t see God or angels standing in the corners of the sterile trauma bay. I didn’t feel God’s presence. There were no “holy moments” throughout that time, no miraculous interventions, no warm, glowing light. There was only a cold, sterile room and the loud white noise of the machinery.

I wanted to run as far as I could from the ICU. Instead, I found myself firmly rooted to the bedside. I knew my role was to be physically and emotionally present for this event, but it was painful. “I really hate bearing witness,” I thought to myself as I moved my hand on the tiny hospital bed, ready to hold tiny fingers, should they reach for a hand.

Only months earlier, a labor and delivery nurse had lovingly counted ten fingers, ten toes on this child. Every part of the baby’s birth had been charted and marked down. Now, those ten perfect tiny fingers lay limp. The baby died a day later.

Bearing witness to pain and injustice is never easy. Yet, it awakens us to God and the role God calls us to play in this world.

The story of Saul’s conversion in Acts 9-1-19 is a great example of this. As the scales fell from Saul’s eyes, he saw the world more clearly. However, his clear sight came at a cost to him. Once he “saw,” he paid the price through a complete transformation, gutting himself of his old identity completely.

Bearing witness feels like the same momentous act. It’s layers of thin scales falling from our eyes that were obstructing the reality of the world around us.

Bearing witness strips the muscles of our hearts until they are tender and soft. Only then can our hearts be molded to beat with compassion for the poor, marginalized, broken, lonely, hungry, trafficked and exploited and abused.

The question we must ask ourselves is not if we’re ready to bear witness, but if we’re ready to be changed by the witness that we bear.