When I was sixteen, my mom got me interested in being a volunteer at Taylor Hospital in Ridley Park, PA, where she worked as an RN. It was a different medical world back then, nearly fifty years ago. The nurses all wore white dresses and white shoes, along with caps which identified where they studied nursing. My mom proudly balanced her Philadelphia General Hospital double-frilled cap on her head each and every shift she worked.
The nurses were the caregivers in the hospital. They made beds, bathed patients and changed their gowns, took vitals, dispensed medications, started IVs, changed dressings, and recorded everything by hand on paper charts. They hung glass bottles of IV solutions and took temperatures with glass oral thermometers. There were no aides or techs that I remember. The nurses handled everything.
My volunteer uniform was a too-big light blue blazer with a hospital logo patch on the sleeve. I had two jobs each time I spent some after-school hours at the hospital. I filled a tub with crushed ice and then stopped in each room to refill everyone’s water pitcher. When the meal trays came up, I would take them to the rooms and then collect them once each patient had finished.
Once the trays were distributed, there were always a few patients who needed to be fed. That was a bonus job. Sometimes the kitchen sent up pureed food, but more often I had to cut up the meat and vegetables. Then I simply sat there and fed them. It was my first experience with basic patient care.
One day, though, I got to help an orderly move a corpse. (Orderlies moved people around the hospital.) For some reason, only one orderly was available, so I was asked to help out. I’m pretty sure this was my first-ever moment in the presence of someone who had died. It wasn’t a difficult task. He picked up the shoulders of the draped body while I lifted the legs. I remember the corpse being stiff, literally dead weight. Once the body was on the gurney, the orderly wheeled it away.
A decade later, I found myself visiting patients in the hospital as part of my seminary field work and vicarage (internship). Walking into the patient rooms, it all felt familiar. Like I had been there before. I’ve scrubbed into neonatal intensive care units to pray with very tiny boys and girls. I’ve gowned, gloved, masked and capped up to visit members in isolation. I’ve prayed with families as they shut off life-support for a parent. I’ve sat with members, waiting for the funeral home to come and pick up the corpse of a deceased loved one lying there in the room. Mom never knew I would one day study for pastoral ministry. But somehow she must have known that hospital experience would serve me well. (She and Jesus were always pretty close.)
I only volunteered for a year, but the experience has served me well in ministry. I’ve always been fascinated rather than intimidated by the tubes and pumps, the medications and the monitors, the ventilators and bedpans. After each visit, I my wife (a nurse-practitioner) lots of questions: “What is that medication for?” “What does this machine do?” “What do those numbers mean?” I have learned so much from her! I also have great respect for all who work in the hospitals and nursing homes and clinics, bringing God’s healing grace in many ways.