Once upon a time, I was working on a book of essays of moments and milestones, of unexpected blessings, of tiny crossroads with huge repercussions. It was a list of catalysts and was to be entitled “The Things that Change Us.” I worked on it for a while, then discovered I was blocked, and became distracted by every day minutia, eventually putting it to the side and forgetting about it.I wanted this series, this book to have a certain format. I wanted thirteen stories, each reflecting the magnitude of the impact they had on my life. I wanted it to be just so. Even as I write this, this introduction, I realize that stories take on a shape of their own, that they are living beings, possessing the spirit and will of their own.
Moments like these often come when we least expect them. Lost in the mindless chaos of the drudgery of day-to-day activities, we often keep going until we’re brought full-stop by something that interrupts our routine.
This full-stop can be the smallest of things: an overheard phrase uttered by someone speaking to someone else; fireflies on the darkest of nights; an image; a “chance” meeting. These moments have two sides; you never know when you’ll be the recipient of one, and you definitely don’t know when you’ll be the provider for someone else.
These moments, for me, are miracles. That word—miracle—often gets thrown around, especially in marketing. Whether I call it a paradigm shift, a wake-up moment, or a miracle, the change is the same: an instantaneous yet fundamental change in my belief system that creates change with no resistance.
I didn’t have enough essays to fill a book, and still don’t for that matter, and yet it is one of those stories that I feel MUST be told. Thanks to takingthemask off and this post, I really feel the time is now.
This is the story of my Grace.
In the United States, much less the world, there are hundreds, if not thousands of emergency rooms. We, the staff of those emergency rooms, number in the tens of thousands—hundreds of thousands, perhaps. We bear witness to millions of patients, all with individual stories, all with individual reasons for being there. While all emergency rooms treat basic emergencies, the larger hospitals may have a specialty—trauma, cardiac, perhaps even psychiatric. The common thread to all emergency rooms, that commonality that lies beyond the common staffing, overwhelming patient numbers and limited rooms, is the trauma: the physical trauma, that brings them to us; the emotional trauma, that makes them wary and carves upon them life-long scars; and the spiritual trauma, which steals from them their courage, their connectedness, and leaves them even more vulnerable than before.
The emergency room creates an environment of frenetic pace–twelve hour shifts of being on one’s feet, oftentimes without significant pauses, without relief, or without a meal break consisting of anything more than hurriedly eating between fetching medicines or escorting patients back to draped rooms. Multiple accidents, multiple patients, and multiple complaints can all converge on one place at one time, again and again, making those who care for those patients worn and weary. With such limited energy, the niceties, those little acts of compassion can be forgotten in favor of the important, the life-saving, the necessary.
There are thousands upon thousands of emergency room staff, and patients number a thousand thousand times that. Each person, staff or patient, carries his or her own story. There are a thousand stories in the world, but this one is mine. There are a million Graces in the world, but this is my Grace, and this is my story.
The night itself was not particularly unusual. Two out of four admissions staff had called in; only one other registration clerk along with myself was working grave shift in our local hospital. We were responsible for ensuring all patients were accurately identified, signed in with correct identification and insurance information, and given an armband. For tasks beyond that scope we were not responsible, yet somehow we were called upon to answer endless questions— many of which were outside the range our knowledge—fetch towels, water, and oftentimes other staff. The job seemed straightforward enough and simple enough. The challenge, however, often came in the pace of the job and maintaining composure in the height of such a frenetic pace. At the height of cold and flu season, when the patients often left the section of the emergency room designated for minor cases, seemingly as soon as they came in, the staff scrambled to register them before one patient was replaced by another presenting with similar symptoms. When the names, faces and diagnoses began to blur, patience and compassion often plummeted. Ambulances flooded in as well, like endless cargo ships unloading patients, bringing chest pain patients, victims of varying degrees of trauma, and the usual tide of those with minor ailments who chose to ride in an ambulance rather than drive themselves to the hospital. People became diagnoses: no longer were they John Smith or Bill Jones or Mary Peters; they were “Cold in Seven,” or “Drug Seeker in One,” or “Ingrown Toenail in Ten.”
I had been working in admissions for two years or so, and for over half of that time I had been on night shift. I had recently left a horribly dysfunctional and destructive marriage, and found myself, just over the age of thirty, explosively angry, bitter, and very much full of resentment. I had very little joy, and even less compassion. I resented everyone for everything, and spent half of my energy sulking and keeping it buried– whether I had a logical reason for being angry or not– and the other half blowing up at people and giving them the “old what for.”
I was also very burned out. The job of an admissions clerk was not only fast paced, but also thankless and possessed an alarmingly high capacity for burn out. The nurses and medical technicians referred to us as “Registration,” as if that were our name, and the doctors only noticed us at all if we had made some kind of error. Patients did not want to meet us either on their way or on their way out. When they first arrived, they saw us as an inconvenience, standing between them and their doctor. On their way out, they especially did not want to see us, because, we were required to attempt to collect copayments or set up payment arrangements if they did not have insurance. No one wanted to see us, it seemed, but everyone needed us.
In fact, it had not been too long before this on a night much like this one, overwhelmed with patients and terribly short staffed, that I found myself literally screaming in the middle of the emergency room at another admissions clerk, just as frayed as I was, in full view of patients, nurses, and doctors alike.
It was not my finest moment.
But this night, unlike the other, I received a lesson that I never forgot, for this was the night I met Grace.
A thin, wailing sound came from one of the rooms from beyond the door that separated the acute psychiatric and detox patients from the rest of the masses. The locking door swung open and closed with alarming frequency, a testament to our desperation as we ran from psychiatric care to chest pain, from chest pain to medical, from medical to trauma and back again to psych. In my rush to get everyone properly registered, I must have run past her room a dozen times, ignoring her. When I asked the nurses at the desk about her, they told me “She’s detoxing. Don’t worry about her.”
She had not officially signed in yet, since she had been brought in to us by ambulance, but she was in the computer system, so her nurses and doctors would be able to run necessary tests. That was the most important thing. She was going to be there for a very long time, so getting her to sign her consent for treatment form was not a priority, not with everything else going on around me.
When I finally made time for her, she offered a weak smile and thanked me for coming to see her. She had been asking for her nurse, and no one had answered. I stepped toward her and presented her with the clip board so that she could sign her consent form. Her hand was slow, and it seemed to take forever for her to write, in shakes and tics, her name. Verifying her name and date of birth, proved to be another tedious process because she had trouble remembering her birthday. After what seemed to me an eternity, I wrapped the armband around her wrist and stood back a step.
“Do you know who my nurse is?” she asked, her voice as shaky as her writing.
I didn’t. In the emergency room, everyone is entitled to know who their caregivers are, but I was leery of psych itself and suspicious of the motives of psych patients. Psych patients were a different breed, I thought. I saw them as broken people, unable to cope and highly unstable. As poorly as I thought of psych patients, I thought twice as badly of drunks. Having been married to an active alcoholic who didn’t see his drinking as a problem, what little sympathy I had for psych patients disappeared when they were alcoholics as well.
“I could try to find out for you,” I told her, not willing to truly commit to much of anything. “Do you need something?”
She paused and, taking a deep breath to steady herself, said, “I’d like to thank her.”
“Thank her?” I asked. “For what?”
“My veins are horrible. I’ve been told, many times, that I’m not a good stick. With my hands shaking the way they are, I know that only made it worse. She was able to take my blood on the first try.”
I didn’t say anything at first, simply surprised.
She raised her eyes to mine and asked me, “Are you a child of God?”
To this, I didn’t have an immediate answer. Having been through hell during my marriage, again with my divorce, and carrying so much rage beneath the surface that I lashed out at just about anything that crossed my path, I hadn’t thought of God in a long, long time, other than to wonder where He had been during my darkest days. I shifted from foot to foot. After an extended pause, I finally spoke. “I’d like to think so,” I said, not really believing the words as I said them. How could I? They weren’t even true.