Personal · Religious · Short-term/Acute Illness

My Favorite Fork in the Road

When I am stuck in my thoughts, I often ponder the different forks in the road, the different decisions, the different pivotal moments, that have led me to exactly where I am rather than some other place. When I am doing well emotionally, this bird’s-eye view gives me a sense of nostalgia and gratitude; when I am struggling, I tell myself that some of the potentially better moves were obvious and I missed the signs.

Some of these decisions were made by others, but a significant chunk of them were mine. 

Some delight me and some haunt me.

Some bring joy and some carry shame.

All of them make me well up with curiosity:

The decision to say “none of the above” to the question my parents posed to my sister and me when we were young: “Would you like to go to Jewish Temple, Catholic Church, or none of the above?” 

The decision to say hellos to the girls in high school who would end up abusing me, and conversely to give apathetic head nods and goodbyes to the people who treated me with sincerity and respect, people who likely would not have left me with (as many) scars as I now bear.

The decision to attend Vanderbilt University rather than another.

The decision to step out in faith and forge a new sense of purpose and meaning when the floor caved in under me. 

Some of the forks, however, were obvious, and even when I am feeling stuck in the past, I know this and can say it with confidence: there was one way to go, and I went without a second thought. These are the moments that I attribute the direction to God alone, the moments when the Holy Spirit moved within me and practically pushed me out one door and into another, whether I was ready or not. My favorite fork is one of these.

I was working a 15-hour per diem shift at the 965-bed hospital I had completed my internship, a trauma 1 hospital in the middle of a sprawling college town. 5:30 PM-8:30 AM, with every trauma, code, stroke, death, and routine request for spiritual care coming directly to my pager. It was considered lucky to get fewer than 20 pages during a 24-hour shift. The pager was, and still is, an unpredictable companion. When I was not in the middle of a call, it was wise to be resting up in the on-call room, catching sleep at any possible moment. 

At around 2 AM, I was walking the winding path back from the trauma bay to the on-call room. The most efficient journey between the two places made it virtually impossible to look away from the commotion of each movement within the Emergency Room. Give empathic looks to the patients. Smile at the staff. Say quick hellos. Never utter the words “it’s been a quiet night.” Get to the mercifully dark, cold, little room with a twin-sized cot, a desk, and remarkably noise-insulated walls. Take your shoes off. Crawl into bed. Pray for a silent pager as you place it on the desk, still within earshot. 

This time, I didn’t make it through my beeline. A patient was shouting, “Somebody fucking help me! Somebody fucking help me!” I saw the charge nurse roll his eyes. I gave a questioning glance. He answered, “He’s drunk and has been trying to hit the staff.” 

Don’t go in there. Don’t go looking for extra work. You never know when the pager will go off next. 

“Do you think he could benefit from spiritual care?”

“I wouldn’t go in if I were you.”

Don’t go in there. Don’t go looking for extra work. You never know when the pager will go off next.

I looked into his room and saw him in restraints. One of his roommates had a police escort. We locked eyes. He stared at me, reading my uncertainty about where my next footstep would bring me. “Somebody fucking help me!” he yelled again, louder this time, despite my being just a few feet from him. 

I made the choice: I walked in and pulled up a chair. “What kind of help do you need?”

I never introduced myself, neither my name nor my role; there was no time for such pleasantries. Even before my body had met the chair, he had gone from screaming at the top of his lungs to almost whispering. He began sobbing quietly. He stopped cursing. He started a flow of words that had been dammed up and now might never stop. 

I sat with him for 40 minutes as he poured out his painful present and the past traumas that were wrecking his future. I put my hand on his restrained hand, my freedom starkly contrasted with his, and yet our humanity – its differences and similarities – coursed through the spot of contact. 

Near the end of our time together, he told me that he wanted to kill himself. By listening patiently and carefully, by letting him put together and take apart the pieces of his story in his own way, I saw him find his way to his truth and the opportunity for more personalized medical care: a one-to-one nursing attendant whose sole job was to make sure he did not have the opportunity and means to act on his worst thoughts.    

He was no longer alone.

I said maybe 50 words the entire time I was with him. It didn’t matter who I was or what I had to say. What mattered was that there was a human being by his side whose only focus during that time was him, someone to show him that he mattered and he wasn’t alone in the world, despite what his pains would have him believe. 

I had the privilege of being that person because I walked in when I was advised to walk away. It was a privilege to lose 40 minutes of sleep that night. It still is a privilege to look back at all the aspects of human nature and need that this crucible of a moment held within it. It still is a privilege to remember that this man chose to trust me because I looked him in the eyes after many people had looked away. 

What wasn’t a privilege was the humbling reminder, years before the Covid-19 pandemic hit, that my job as a hospital chaplain has health risks attached to it. At some point during that shift, I contracted Clostridium difficile, a common hospital-acquired infection. The patients I had seen earlier that night had been clearly marked when they needed infection precautions. I had gowned and gloved. I had used hand sanitizer before and after every patient interaction and washed my hands with soap and water when the patients’ door signs told me to. The only patient who hadn’t been marked or tested was the man I met in the Emergency Room. 

C. diff can kill people with compromised immune systems or age-related health decline; in 2014, it was the primary cause of death for 15,000 people in the United States. Thankfully, my immune system is strong, but C. diff humbled my body to the ground. I spent the next month of my life barely being able to eat; going on and off of quarantine precautions (imagine my surprise and dismay when much of the world would be doing this together a few years later!); taking heavy doses of antibiotics that further destroyed my digestive tract; spending my time either staring at my bedroom ceiling or bathroom floor; and being an absentee student and person in general. I was so fatigued from my symptoms that it was hard for me to do anything that I was required to do (or even that I liked to do). Quarantining and experiencing my family’s fear of me and being followed with bleach wipes everywhere I went made me feel like an alien. I embodied Pig-Pen from Peanuts. I retreated, shutting my blackout curtains and trying to look away from my life so that I wouldn’t be as upset about what I was missing. 

I craved human connection that didn’t revolve around my unpleasant temporary reality. I decided to return to a place I hadn’t been in two years: online dating apps. I figured that I could send light and flirtatious messages (without mentioning that I was writing them while chugging electrolyte drinks and spending hours in the bathroom) and know that someday, I would be able to leave the house again and potentially meet someone who had made my quarantine period even just a little bit less awful. 

That person was Lucas, who to this day says that he has no idea how I came up with as many conversation topics as I did without ever mentioning what was going on with my body. Every classic love story’s beginning stems from C. diff and culminates at an Escape Room after weeks of waiting, right?

He was worth the wait.

I would never change my decision to sit with that patient. There was no decision that needed to be made. God whispered “go,” and I went. There was a person who was hurting, and I had a chance to take away even just one of the thousands of hurts by simply showing up. I had a chance to offer him companionship as he looked at the wounds he had accumulated over time. I took it. I’d take it again. 

Just like with almost all of my patients, I don’t know what happened to him after our time together. I only know the ways that they have shaped my life. In his case, he reminded me that sometimes we yell don’t touch me or I want to be alone when the healing balm we need is just the opposite. That sometimes we curse to cover up the reality that we lack the right words to express ourselves or ask for help. That we sometimes need someone to act as a witness to our humanity when we feel like an alien. That we always need each other. That we cannot do this alone.

That we can get up and try again.

I’m grateful for the fork that brought me to the man whose name I will never know, but whose story I will never forget.

I’m grateful for the fork that showed me how much the work of a chaplain matters, despite the health risks. It prepared me to serve during a far deadlier pandemic with a little more steadiness in my gait. I showed up after C. diff and I showed up day after day during Covid.

I’m grateful for the fork that led me to you, my dear Lucas.

One thought on “My Favorite Fork in the Road

  1. Well done Emmie. You gave him what he so much needed. Your full presence and attention, speaking from human to human,…….our world is in need of this humble and basic human attention.

    Like

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