Death can be an annoying side effect of breaking the rules of life. It was this little truth the supervising nurse and I were quoting as we humorously tried to detour the flood of sympathy we were feeling as we examined the wallet of a dead electrician. Having done some electrical work in my youth, there are two things I know: Turn off the power before working on a circuit and never work alone. Our patient had broken both rules. The patient was transported to our ER and a judgmental air began to seep through our staff. CPR brought no clemency and the doctor was left to pronounce the sentence: dead on arrival. Found by a stranger, no one knew how to contact his next of kin, so the doctor asked us to search his wallet for phone numbers.
“Jeez, looks like a George Costanza wallet,” the nurse complained. “Everything’s in here. Hey, doctor, do you want to know where this guy works out?”
“No,” the doctor answered.
“How about where he does his shopping?” I chimed.
“His auto insurance?”
“No. Just get me those phone numbers.”
“Oh, jeez,” I say, reigniting our volley, “I don’t suppose you want to know how many kids he has.”
The doctor shot us a stream of pressured air from between pursed lips.
“She’s cute,” the nurse said, displaying one of a handful of pictures.
“Yeah, she can’t be more than 5 years old. How many others?”
“Looks like five kids,” she said as she let the portfolio unravel.
“Oh, man,” I said, “Here’s his wife.”
“They look happy,” the nurse observed.
“Here we go,” I announced, holding up a phone list like the winning raffle ticket.
“Well, call ’em and let’s get this guy processed,” the doctor shot back.
Moods switched during the next few minutes as the nurse called the wife to say the usual thing: “We have your husband in our ER and you’ll want to bring a friend for support.”
The next few hours played out predictably. Upon her arrival, I escorted the wife back to the conference room where the doctor bestowed her with her new identity as a widow. Her tear ducts exploded with incredulous grief, but subsided long enough for her to see her husband and choose a funeral home. After she left, the ER slowed to a lull and the doctor found a quiet moment to catch up with his charting. I figured it was a good time to catch up with him for debriefing.
“Sorry about our questions back there, doctor. I guess we were just trying to deflect some of the tension of seeing that guy’s life unfolding from his wallet.”
“Yeah, I’m sure it was tough, but I knew all I needed to know,” the doctor said, as he reserved one eye for the front doors. “I knew I had a cold dead guy on a gurney and until you two found someone to claim the guy, I had one less trauma room for someone who might need it.
“I know it sounds cold, but it’s tough for me, too. No one thinks it is, but it is — day in, day out. One minute I’m sewing two stitches in a finger cut and the next I’m doing CPR on a father of five.
“It’s like whiplash. I can’t stop to think about the family this guy left behind. I have to be ready for the next auto accident or shooting, where I might actually help the guy.
“Guess that’s why you’re here, chaplain. You get to stop and think about all that stuff. I can’t.”
Working on another chart and passively eavesdropping, the supervising nurse sent me a disapproving look on a private line. Was he right? Is feeling just an audacious luxury for the healer? It wasn’t just the doctor. We were all being rather stingy with our sympathy — saving it for the more deserving. We were denying our own proclivity for doing the stupid and had reverted to a judgment mode.
The doctor donned the cloak of professionalism and the nurse and I choked on our attempt at gallows humor.
Now, years later, I’ve not been able to totally unscramble the pieces of that night, but I do know when I hold my sympathy in reserve for only the deserving, I run the risk of letting it become rusty and unusable, and even unstable. I guess that is why one of my favorite portrayals of God remains that of the “Great Physician.”
I find this physician is not only generous with his sympathy for all the stupid things I do, but his sympathy is never held in reserve for the more deserving.