Last month, I was working as a per diem chaplain in a local hospital when an emergency room nurse directed me to the lobby to meet the husband of her patient.
“Our patient is under CPR and,” she confided, “we don’t expect her to make it.”
A few minutes later, I sat manning my usual position on a vinyl couch in the ER waiting room when a distraught man approached the admitting clerk inquiring about our patient. When the clerk nodded toward me, I stepped up to introduce myself as simply, “Norris.”
“Follow me,” I said and led him into a private waiting room where I disclosed my full identity as a chaplain. Sometimes this is the point where people scream, but the man laid a soft hand on my arm and asked me to pray.
Despite having heard the nurse predict a poor outcome, I expressed a genuinely fervent prayer. Afterwards, I excused myself to go to the trauma room and check on the progress of the staff, and perhaps the progress of my prayer.
The trauma room is a tight, busy place with little room for spectators, but I felt compelled to glue myself into a corner where I watched the doctor charge the defibrillator and give his orders.
“Charge – clear – shock.”
“One ampule epinephrine.” The simplicity in his voice was of someone ordering a double espresso.
More compressions and more shock.
Heads turned toward the monitor. Nothing.
“Charge – clear – shock.” The doctor said again.
The staff performed the procedure six times until finally the doctor said, “I’m calling it. Any objections?”
I did, but I could only hear myself say, “The husband is waiting for you, Doc.”
Directly, the doctor joined me in the conference room where he asked the man to recount how all this had happened.
The patient’s husband put his face in his hands. “I don’t really know.”
He was right. He only knew that the day started as a “routine day.” He’d exchanged routine kisses with his wife and then dropped her at a nearby medical facility for her scheduled treatment. When her clinician stepped away for a few minutes, he returned to find her unresponsive.
“How’s my wife, doctor?” the new widower finally asked.
The doctor stalled his response by calculating how long our patient been under CPR.
“All added up – between the clinic staff, the EMTs and our staff – we worked on your wife for nearly an hour,” the doctor said.
The husband began anticipating. “She’s only 62, Doc. Please, please.”
The doctor looked back to the ground. “I’m so sorry,” he said. “She’s gone.”
The incident wasn’t much different than the scores I’d seen before, but there was something about this family that had me doubting myself. Had I been hypocritical to pray so hard for an outcome I knew wasn’t likely to happen? Had I given the man false hope?
As the husband dropped back into his chair, sobbing, I renewed my prayers — this time for the eventual resurrection of that part of him that had just died. I prayed that God would begin the sort of healing that can’t be measured with thermometers, EKGs, and blood pressure cuffs — the long, slow, healing of a broken heart.
After all, I thought, the true result of prayer can’t always be measured in outcome. Maybe prayer gains some power in the input. Perhaps prayer has a power to heal even when it does not cure.