In football, it’s called a “punt.” In the hospital, it’s called a “referral” and it describes that moment when a hospital staff member realizes there is a need that is beyond their responsibility or expertise.
It’s when they know they can’t do anything, but surely someone can do something. Often times I’m the “someone” they call to do “some thing.”
Answering a referral to the Emergency Room, I bolted through the ER doors as Dianne, the charge nurse, threw an arm across my chest like a railroad crossing gate.
“Chaplain, we’ve got a man here with the flu,” she said, shifting into whisper mode, “and I thought maybe you could do ‘something’ for the wife.”
The look I gave Diane must have shown that I didn’t consider the flu to be a typical chaplain referral.
“It’s serious, Norris. He walked himself up to the triage desk, but he began turning blue in the treatment room.”
“OK, sounds serious, but what made you think she wanted a chaplain, did she ask for one?”
“Not exactly,” she said pointing to a 48-year-old woman down the hall who was mumbling to herself as she rocked a chair that wasn’t a rocking chair. She seemed like she might be a “psych admit.”
Nope. This was the wife. And as I got close enough to hear, I realized she was not mumbling incoherent gibberish. She was praying.
“Help me, Jesus, Help me Jesus. Oh, God, please help me, Jesus.”
I put my hand on her shoulder and joined her chorus.
“Help her, Jesus. Help her, please. Hear her cry.”
She suddenly grabbed my hand and pulled me downward just as the nurse was sliding a chair underneath me. We were kneecap to kneecap.
“Is my husband going to live? I’ve told Jesus I’d do anything.”
She paused for just a moment before the words burst from her without ceasing.
“He only had a cold. We went to the doctor then came home. Three days later, I was begging him to return. ‘Something’s not right’ I told him. ‘We should go back to the doctor,’ but he argued that doctors would just tell him to drink plenty of liquids and get some rest. So we did nothing until this morning.”
“What happened then?” I asked.
“His temperature wouldn’t go down. He was hallucinating. He didn’t know what day it was, and his temperature hit 105.”
From behind the woman’s back, the nurse shook her head and raised a finger toward the roof to indicate a higher fever.
“Chaplain, what’s going to happen? Is he going to live?”
On that question, Dianne revealed her answer only to me as she shook her head in a definitive “no.” With that final vote, she disappeared back into the treatment room.
That’s when I wanted to make a referral. It wasn’t my place to announce the prognosis or deliver any final news. Yet the woman was crying for a medical opinion and tightening her tortured grip on my hand hard enough that I wanted to tell her everything I knew.”
Will you pray with me, Chaplain? Pray that he will live.”
For a moment I was stumped, knowing she was asking me to pray for an outcome that wasn’t likely to happen. But then I realized that the miracle might not be in the outcome, it was in the input. Prayer has a power to heal even when it does not cure.
She was really asking me to pray for the healing of two lives – his and hers – his physical life and her life together with him. So, I prayed – hard.
And at the moment of our “amen,” the doctors emerged stripping their gloves and doing that cliché headshake they do.
As the woman dropped back into her chair, sobbing, I renewed my praying – this time for the eventual resurrection of that part of her that had just died. I prayed that God would begin the kind of miraculous healing that can’t be measured with thermometers, EKGs, and blood pressure cuffs – the long, slow, grievous healing of a broken heart.
Knowing that healing can happen gives me hope. Knowing how it happens is outside my expertise – So, if you asked me how, I’d refer the question a little higher up.