Tag: sickness

Five Things I Learned in the Hospital

duke_univ_hospWith my almost 3-week hospital stay behind me, I realized there are several things I learned from the experience. Here are five of them:

1. People who are in the hospital are really sick.

You might think that would be obvious, but when I say sick, I mean really sick. With today’s cost-driven medical care, you’ve got to be really sick to be admitted, and really, really sick to stay for almost 3-weeks like I did. Recognizing the degree of a person’s illness should have a great deal to do with how we minister to those in the hospital.

2. Brief visits are good visits.

While I enjoyed seeing everyone who came to see me, when I was at my sickest the shorter the visit the more I appreciated it. There are several reasons for brief visits. First, the patient is really sick (see Item #1 above). Second, being really sick means your attention span, your strength, and your ability to carry on a conversation are all limited. Third, hospital patients often have to use the bathroom more frequently than others due to the nature of their illness and medications they might be receiving. Keeping your visit short avoids the embarrassment of their having to ask you to leave while they call for the nurse for assistance.

3. Privacy and Dignity Need to Be Preserved by Visitors.

I discovered that being in the hospital means that doctors and nurses ask you about bowel movements, urination, incontinence, and other personal body functions. Often they do this right in front of everyone in the room, assuming that its okay to ask any question with guests present. Visitors should help the patient preserve what little privacy and dignity they have left, by excusing themselves when the doctor enters the room, or the nurse comes in to check on the patient. By exhibiting sensitivity toward the patient’s privacy and dignity, guests will show respect for the patient.

4. Let Sleeping Patients Lie.

Believe it or not, hospital life is not conducive to sleep. Almost every night at 3 AM, a lab technician would come in to draw blood for lab tests. Of course, she had to turn on the overhead light, and I had to sit up for her to find an unused vein (they grew harder to find each day) from which to draw blood. So, if you come into a hospital room where the patient is asleep, write a note and then quietly leave. The patient will appreciate your visit and your thoughtfulness.

5. Offer specific ways you can help.

Offer specific ways you are able to help make the patient’s stay easier. While there we had people offer to take our dirty clothes home and wash them. Others brought us food, or drinks, and some offered to do so when we got home. Two men in our church installed a new shower head in our shower so I could shower seated. Others offered transportation, help with travel and parking expenses, and many assured us of their prayers. Saying, “I can’t do everything, but I can wash clothes. Can I take yours home and wash them and return them tomorrow,” is a great way of offering to do something specific.

Of course, I learned more than 5 things while in the hospital and maybe I’ll share some of those later. But for now, these are things that can enhance your hospital ministry whether you’re a pastor or concerned church member. I’m also interested in what you’ve learned from your experience being hospitalized. What things would you add to this list. Put them in the comments, and I’ll add them in a later post. Thanks, and it’s good to be home again!

An Unwelcomed and Unexpected Illness

It’s 11:12 PM on Friday night, March 8, 2013. I cannot sleep despite having taken several medications that are supposed to relieve the pain I’m having. Yesterday, after two weeks of agonizing symptoms and three trips to hospital emergency rooms, a neurologist diagnosed me with idiopathic peripheral neuropathy, a fancy way of saying I have unexplained pain, numbness, and weakness in my legs, arms, and other parts of my body.

During his examination, he determined that I no longer have reflexes in my legs and arms. You know the test: the doctor whacks you on the knee with a rubber hammer and your leg pops up involuntarily. Except mine doesn’t, not even slightly. I am now walking with the aid of either a cane or a walker because the bottoms of my feet are numb, and my legs give way without warning.

Needless to say, this is an unwelcomed and unexpected situation. I am an extremely healthy person. I lost 40 pounds last year eating a low-fat vegan diet, just like Bill Clinton does. My heart, which has been tested three different times over the past two weeks, was described by the cardiologist as “as good as it gets.” My blood pressure, cholesterol, triglycerides, and blood sugar are all well within the optimum ranges.

In January of this year, I contracted a nasty virus and was sick for three weeks. I was so sick that my wonderful church family gave me the entire month off to recuperate. I had only been back to work three weeks when the first of my symptoms began to appear. On Monday I will have a MRI, and on Tuesday a nerve conductivity test where apparently you become a human pin cushion to measure the speed and conductivity of nerves throughout the body.

To be on this side of illness is a new experience for me. I now know why when I visit my members in the hospital, their arms are black-and-blue from the IV ports inserted in them. I am more able to empathize with the loss of dignity in times of illness as others talk about your bodily functions and as you lie half-naked on an uncomfortable gurney hoping you’re not putting on a show for those passing by.

The other part of this experience is to be on the receiving end of love and care demonstrated by my community and congregation. Members have brought food, sent flowers, loaned me a recliner and a walker, have prayed, visited, and expressed their concern over and over again. I have found that it is encouraging to have someone visit when you’re sick. I do feel supported, loved, and cared for by the people I have called my flock for almost 9 years.

Debbie and I do not know if this condition is permanent or temporary. In either event, we do know that God is walking with us down this road, whether the journey is long or brief. Most importantly, we feel God’s presence in the cards, calls, visits, food, flowers, and expressions of concern from our church family.

I’m learning some new things about the ways of God. Not that God caused this illness, or even would will it on me or anyone, but I am learning that in the midst of difficulty, God is present in Spirit and in the lives of the people in whose hearts he lives and reigns. I hope to be back soon with a regular schedule of sermons and thoughts on small church life, but for now I’m on my own journey to the cross and empty tomb, but I’m not on it alone.

Grief as the surprising companion of cancer

As cancers go, it was the best kind to have, the doctor said.  Basal cell carcinoma, a type of skin cancer, that lives at the base layer of the skin, but rarely metastasizes to other parts of the body.  The bad news, he said, was that it was in the worst place it could be — in the middle of Debbie’s upper lip.  It would have to be removed.  There would be a scar.  He couldn’t work miracles.  That was only for Hollywood, he said.

Debbie had noticed what appeared to be an enlarged pore just at the bow of her lip.  Early last summer, she noticed a lump inside her lip just under this pore.  Summer was busy, though.  We had Vacation Bible School in June.  In July, my brother died and we made a week-long trip to south Georgia for his funeral.  In August, I spoke at a conference at Myrtle Beach, where we had a few days in the sun.  In October, Debbie went to a new dermatologist because the lump was bigger.

The dermatologist immediately diagnosed the enlarged pore and the lump as skin cancer, probably basal cell.  We were both stunned.  Neither of us had thought about cancer.  A cyst, maybe.  A clogged pore.  But cancer was a complete surprise.  A biopsy confirmed the diagnosis.  Then we had to wait for an appointment with the surgeon.  Debbie had the option of scheduling a consultation with the dermatological surgeon prior to her surgery.   On a November day we met him in his office.  That’s when he told us the good and bad news.  Most of it seemed bad to us.  Surgery was scheduled for December 11.

Last Friday, she went in for what would be called minor surgery by a casual observer.  With Mohs surgery, they don’t even put you to sleep.  She walked into the clinic, then out again four hours later.  The cancer was excised, and the doctor, who is also a plastic surgeon, did a wonderful job of repairing her lip where the cancer had been.  It was larger than he thought it would be, he said.  About the size of a nickel, right on her upper lip.

What surprised us both was the grief that was companion to the cancer.  Our first reaction was shock and disbelief.  How could this be cancer, even the least invasive kind?  It didn’t look like cancer.  Not like all the warning signs of cancer you typically see.  Our shock turned to anger at another doctor who had dismissed the enlarged pore with an “I don’t know what this is, but don’t worry about it.”

And then we prayed.  And read books on healing, and wondered if somehow God would not heal her so she wouldn’t have to go through the surgery.  And we prayed until we could not pray about it anymore.  We had no more words, no ability to sit together and ask God for anything — healing, peace, grace, calm, nothing.  We had come to the end of our prayers.  We had to hope that Paul was right, that the Spirit would pray for us because we did not know how to pray for ourselves.

And we cried.  We cried in our private moments, when we turned out the light at night, lying in bed.  We held each other and cried for the uncertainty, the loss, the fear, and the anxiety.  We wept because we had no words with which to comfort each other in the face of this disease that had crept into our life and now occupied almost our every thought.

We cried for each other when we were not crying for ourselves.  We grieved the loss of this part of Debbie’s body, this part of her lip on which I had seen a million smiles take form and blossom.  We grieved because no one else could grieve for us.  Because all the well-intentioned assurances did not help.

But the prayers of others did help, we believe.  The surgery went well, the doctor was skillful, and Debbie is healing.  Her lip no longer has its Cupid’s bow, as that little curved part is called.  But she’s well, the cancer is gone, and we’re on the other side of this experience.  What surprised us was the grief, whose shadow is just now fading.

I have always tried to visit my members who were facing in-patient surgery, and I have sat with families waiting the outcome of open-heart, cancer, and other types of major surgical procedures.   Day surgeries don’t seem as serious.  Medically, I suppose, they are not.  But few will know the emotional and spiritual pain accompanying those procedures we call ‘minor.’  Grief, however, makes no distinction and visits us at surprising moments of our own vulnerability.  I’m going to remember that, I hope.

Jesus never denied the presence of grief, never dismissed it, but always was present with those in grief.  “Blessed are those who mourn,” he said, “for they shall be comforted.”  I want to be among those who are the comforters, as well as the comforted.