Today was mid-unit evaluation day in my CPE class, so we spent the morning reading our self-evaluation papers aloud and discussing them with each other and with our supervisor. Toward the end of the morning, the door to our seminar room opened and in came Rena, the Jewish chaplain who works part-time at Albany Medical Center. "I need to borrow Rachel and Mark," she said.
A Jewish college student who has been in the surgical intensive care unit for about two weeks had taken a turn for the worse, and is once again unresponsive. The family wanted Rena to gather a minyan to pray in the room, in hopes that adding voices and kavvanot (intentions/focus) to the prayer would aid its efficacy -- and that the student, though apparently unconscious, would hear our words. Rena knew that our CPE class meets on Monday, so she came to find us, and brought the two Jewish chaplaincy interns with her to the patient's room in SICU.
Together with two family members, we made up half a minyan. Rena read a prayer for healing, and then we sang the 23rd psalm (to a beautiful melody I had never heard before, though I picked it up as we went along; I'm hoping to get Rena to record it for me soon), Esa Einai (from Psalm 121), and a simple chant I knew for "Ana, El na, refa na la." (That's Numbers 12:13, the astonishingly brief prayer Moses makes over his sister Miriam.) We closed with a mi sheberach, the traditional prayer requesting healing. Throughout we were accompanied by the click and hum of the respirator, moving the patient's chest up and down.
It was a sobering way to spend the first part of our lunch break. But I also came away feeling blessed: humbled and grateful that the family had allowed us into their space and their sorrow for a time, and hopeful that our voices had brought the family some solace. Our supervisor has told amazing stories about people in comas waking up with clear memories of what was said around them, so I hope the unconscious patient heard us, too. Even if the words didn't penetrate on a conscious level, I hope our caring and our intention continue to surround that hospital bed, and continue to provide whatever comfort and peace is possible.
We may not have the power to discern what will become of the person over whom we prayed, nor to definitively affect that outcome with our words -- but we care enough to keep trying, even when we know the situation is out of our hands.