By Norris Burkes April 5, 2014
As the search continues for the avalanche victims in Oso, Wash., and for missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, I can’t help but wonder who would search for me if I was lost.
Would National Guard helicopters search from the air while dogs tracked my scent on the ground? Would churches light prayer candles for me while mystics recounted dreams about me?
We make heroic efforts to recover the physically lost, but are we equally valiant in retrieving those who are spiritually lost?
The question calls to mind a patient I’ll call “Rachael.” I met her last year in the dayroom of our psych ward, where she was hiding her ashen face behind her long and uncombed black hair.
Her wiry frame stretched across a coffee table as she mindlessly worked a jigsaw puzzle. A cursive tattoo across her right forearm spelled the name of her firstborn. Brian, the charge nurse, had called me because officers had scooped Rachael off a bridge.
She had come into our ER reciting a profane litany of reasons why she should be allowed to die at the age of 22. “Hello. I’m Norris,” I said. “What?” she asked, as if startled by a disembodied voice.
I offered a few matching jigsaw pieces, repeated my name and told her I was available if she needed to talk. She said she didn’t. Over the next few days, she adjusted to her medications and began to smile with cajoling staff.
Soon, she invited me to sit with her each afternoon until her parents arrived for family therapy. Rachael’s family brought courageous faith and generous means. Her father was a retired military officer, and her mother was a mental health worker. T
hese resources streamlined a quick discharge, and the family was optimistic. In fact, Rachael became so optimistic that she decided to live without medications. When that didn’t work, she tried dying with her medication stockpile.
She was readmitted to our hospital, and her medications were readjusted. Her family felt reaffirmed in her immediate turnaround, and the doctors discharged her again, noting the family’s buoyant outlook.
Nine months ago, I found a despondent Rachael in our Labor and Delivery unit. Social workers placed her newborn into emergency foster care, and our psychiatrist admitted Rachael for the third time. After a week’s stay and rebalancing of her medications, doctors again sent Rachael home with family. If you’re looking for a happy-ever-after ending, you’ll rarely find it in the lost world of mental health.
Rachael’s case is about as happy as it gets because her family loves her enough to reclaim her from the avalanche of mental illness.
Jesus suggested he knew something of that kind of loving search when he asked his listeners: “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine…and go after the lost sheep until he finds it?
And when he finds it, he joyfully…calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ ” I think Jesus was saying that we devalue our society when we discard any of our members.
Maybe that’s why some of Jesus’ last words on Earth were to his disciple Peter; he commanded him to “Feed my sheep.” Rachael was one of those lost sheep, but because of the loving shepherds managing her care, she’s on her way back to the flock.
She’s even studying to become a veterinary assistant; where I hope to see her caring for some sheep of her own.