Ministering to the sick in a hospital makes for a humbling, memorable and gratifying day. While every profession is unique, chaplaincy is especially atypical. It is not for everyone, for sure, though on better days, it can be most uplifting and rewarding.
None of it compares with my three previous careers. Out of college, a Hollywood actress; after a move to Texas, a professional broadcaster, working news for the big four local TV affiliates. Media work is not much conducive to being home and raising precious kids, so teaching in public schools and at the local college became the careers of choice at the time.
A chaplain, literally, does not know “what’s behind that door” on entering a hospital room. Unlike medical staff, you are not there to poke and probe for physical care. You are there only to minister to their spiritual and emotional needs.
Often the room is dark. You know nothing about the patient’s condition, prognosis, mood or ability to speak. Nothing about whether a patient, or at times, the family, even wants you there, or are receptive to praying. You knock, enter, smile and introduce yourself, there to listen, to be their “partner on the journey.”
Some share life stories, some need comforting.
Most like having someone just to sit and listen. Patients can have a quick sense of humor. As one patient, with a twinkle in his eye, said, “If I knew you were coming, I would have dressed up!” Then another who wanted to show me his scar, somewhere on his lower body, it seems. I QUICKLY walked out and called the nurse. Those sweet nurses, hard as nails, nothing fazes them!
The most memorable patient, by far, is Ilona. In her dark room, she looked tired, with an oxygen tube in her nose.
Most of our patients are from a list they sign up for, saying they are Catholic and want a chaplain’s visit. Ilona was welcoming and I introduced myself.
“Ah,” she said, “Catholic. Yes, well, I have been visiting a lot of different churches.”
She looked weak, so I expected to have a short visit. I was also unsure, thinking “Is she not in the mood for Catholic prayers?”
I visited a few more minutes and was about to exit when she said, “You know, I died.”
I stopped in my tracks. “You died?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said, “they gave me a transplant and it failed and I died … I died … and I saw Jesus. I saw His hands and His feet, His sandals and I heard His voice. He said, ‘Ilona, it’s not your time.’ And I told Him, ‘But I have been suffering too much.’”
She was telling Jesus she did not want Him to send her back to her suffering. Imagine that! Jesus right there with her and she is arguing with him not to send her back!
She continued, “And He said, ‘Ilona, it’s not your time.’” She paused... “And they brought me back.”
“As the heavens are exalted above the earth, so also are my ways exalted above your ways, and my thoughts above your thoughts.” Isaiah 55:9
Our Lord is so close to those who suffer and to each one of us! What a visit that one turned out to be.
I have other stories of life after life that I can't wait to share with you. What about your stories? Write me; I would love to share them in this column.
Terice Richards is a hospital chaplain with the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston. She has been writing professionally since 1981 as a radio and television news reporter, anchor and producer. She earned a B.A. from UCLA and an M.Ed. from the University of Houston. She is a certified teacher, pre-K thru 12th, and completed her practicum for the Pastoral Care Ministry Certificate from St. Mary’s Seminary in Houston. Richards lives with her family in Kingwood.
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