By Norris Burkes
Posted Mar 5, 2017

Ten years ago, I was working as the Chaplain for Women and Children in a local pediatric hospital, visiting patients in our oncology ward and ICUs. I spent most days visiting children and their parents, but sometimes it was the staff that needed my attention.

One day, I was coming out of a patient’s room when I noticed our cardiac surgeon standing at the ICU nurse’s station. He was gazing into the distance with that thousand-yard-stare I recognized from traumatized soldiers.

I had just finished entertaining a sick kid with my trusty sidekick, a zebra marionette I called Stripes. So, we casually slid up to the doc, Stripes rubbing up against his scrubs.

“What’s up doc?” I asked.

“I noticed you visiting that kid in Room 3.”

“Yes. He seems good,” my attempt at half-question, half-prognosis.

“I doubt that, but I might be wrong.”

Surgeons, like Air Force Pilots don’t use the W word unless something is terribly out of place.

“That child,” he said, “has every medical reason to survive, but he probably won’t.”

Stunned by his pessimism, I asked him to say more.

The surgeon told me he had numerous negative encounters with the boy’s parents. He was highly doubtful that they were mentally capable of making the follow-up appointments necessary for the boy’s survival.

“He’s going to die, Chaplain, and there’s not a thing I can do about that.”

I started to say something like how we can’t win them all, but the doc interrupted, pointing to another ICU room.

“That child will also most certainly die.

“She has the most loving parents. They would go to the moon to cure her, but there’s nothing we can do for her. She’ll go home to die.”

Now I was getting his mindset. He was forming a verbal version of a compare-and-contrast essay on his two young patients.

“Why is that, Chaplain?”

I’ll admit I tried to pretend I didn’t understand the question, but he persisted.

“Why do I have one patient who would live if he had caring parents and another patient whose caring parents can’t do a thing to save their only child?”

Of course, I didn’t and still don’t have an answer to that question.

“I guess some days we have to lean on the Serenity Prayer,” I said.

“The one where we ask God to grant us the wisdom to know what we can change and not change?”

I nodded.

“That prayer doesn’t give me the mileage I need,” he admitted.

I sensed the doc needed to know he was making some kind of difference, so I pointed to Stripes.

“I wish people were marionettes like Stripes here. I wish we could make them do things for their own good, but you know we can’t.

“They’re free to make their own decisions about helping themselves or hurting themselves, or,” I added with a glance toward the patient rooms, “even to the point of hurting their children.”

“Where do you get the strength to do all that?” His eyes reflected maybe a trace of moisture.

“I do what I also hope you do,” I told him. “In the midst of chaos, I pray. I share a laugh. I wipe a tear. I offer a shoulder. I lend an ear. And at the end of the day — whether quiet or rushed — I strive to be a visible reminder of the holy in a place that desperately needs it.”

He nodded in reverent agreement. And for the moment, we agreed to table our discussion because we both knew there was no satisfying answer. At least not in this life.

— To read more about pediatric chaplaincy, read Norris’ book, “No Small Miracles” or visit Write Norris at or P.O. Box 247, Elk Grove, Calif., 95759. Twitter @chaplain or call 843-608-9715.

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