*Trigger warning: child trauma, death of a child, children’s hospitals, ER chaplaincy, pediatric chaplaincy*
Seven years ago, on March 28, during my chaplain residency, I had what I would call the on call shift from hell.
It was a Saturday shift, which means I spent 24 hours in the hospital from 8:30 AM Saturday to 8:30 AM Sunday. I had my special pillow for sleeping in the on call room, DVDs to watch in the family services lounge, and 2 meal vouchers for lunch and dinner. I was ready for a typical shift of rounding several times though all the departments and responding to ER emergencies intermixed with rest breaks.
Nope. I was called to the Pediatric ICU to sit with a family as the doctor told them they would be doing brain flow studies on their little one – a test to check for brain death. You don’t want to be the parent on the receiving end of that conversation.
While there, I was paged to oncology where the patient I knew was not doing well began to decline. That child would pass later that day, as would the little one in the PICU.
While the Oncology patient declined into their last breaths, family comforting one another as they cried, I was paged to the ER. A car accident, with a young lady who, I discovered upon entering the room, was much worse off than had been described in the page.
I spent the next 6 hours going between Trauma Room 4 to Family Consult, and then to Oncology and then the PICU. Each family got several minutes of my time. ER ended up needing me the most. I was a calming presence and a buffer, as I prayed with the family and communicated with my eyes to Child Life and Social Work. “KEEP THEM IN THERE AND DO NOT REACT” their eyes said as I told a helpful family friend as gently and calmly as I could, that “if we check *the patient’s* dad’s blood pressure and find that it’s too high, we will have to send him across the street to Northside. We are a pediatric hospital. I’m so sorry. Please help him take deep breaths and small sips of water.”
I would go to the trauma room to utter prayers in the corner for Patient K, and to be a visible presence for the staff – covered in blood, sweat, and desperation. Trauma Room 4 had seen death every day that week.
They worked for hours on Patient K, and finally called it. I was asked to be in the room as the doctor and head nurse told the family that their child had died. The sibling who was driving and physically ok after being checked out at Northside was devastated. I waked the sibling to Patient K’s side. The rest of the family came as they were ready, escorted by me, in small groups.
The Child Life Specialist told me later, “we leave everything as is. Bloody gloves and splatters of blood and messy gowns all over the floor. It shows the amount of effort that went into life saving measures and we’ve found it ultimately is more helpful for the family.”
After sitting with the family until they were ready to leave, I handed them my pitiful offering of parking passes and then, for the first time in either my Internship or Residency (both of which I completed at Scottish Rite), I helped clean up Trauma 4.
We hated that room. The three of us, charge nurse, child life and I shared a brief conversation together and a prayer. When ER staff told me they could take it from there, I grabbed 2 Gatorades from the fridge and went to check on oncology and the PICU. Our oncology patient had passed earlier in the day, and our PICU patient was on life support. I was there the next Monday to see the end of their trauma.
On my way back to the on call room from the PICU, I asked if I could have a blanket from the warmer and they said absolutely. I took my hot blanket to the on call room and eventually fell asleep. Another page, this one to sit with a mother while her child had surgery. That surgery went fine.
On Monday when I arrived at work, my staff chaplain mentor, seeing the 3 deaths and several pages from ER and PICU, told me to take the day off. I said I wanted to stay because I didn’t want to be home alone. They let me stay but I was told to sit at my desk, join my peers for lunch, have a supervision session with my supervisor and leave when I was ready. No work, rounding or patient contact.
My supervisor thanked me for not quitting my residency and coming back after that on call, and then suggested addressing some of my grief through music- my first love in life. I composed the attached song for Patient K’s family, recorded and burned it to a CD and sent it to them.
I’d not thought of it since until I found it today on my google drive. It seems an appropriate song in this exhausting time of vague grief and deep tiredness.
I hope it brings the soothing to your soul that it brought to mine as I composed it and that I hoped it would bring to Patient K’s family.
Peace be with you.