My last on-call shift at the hospital was ten days ago, and on the eve of that shift I was diagnosed with a minor infection. No big deal; I got myself some antibiotics and assumed that was the end of it. I wasn't contagious, so I figured I could still live up to my responsibilities as hospital chaplain for the night. As I drove the hour to Albany, I was aware of some discomfort. I told myself it would be good for me, would help me respond with full compassion to the patients I was there to serve. Being sick, I thought, could make me a particularly good chaplain.
I couldn't have been more wrong. By the time I got to the hospital, I was fighting off panic: ministering to others seemed impossible in the face of my own situation. I had a good cry in the bathroom when I got there, and resolved to pull myself together. I made my early rounds, and followed up on one request for a chaplain's visit. But by early evening the hospital's long halls stretched into infinity as I shuffled slowly from one wing to another. I spent most of that evening in the pastoral care office, drinking water and trying not to fall apart.
I prayed fervently for a quiet night. "Please, God, don't give me anything I can't handle," I said, over and over, as I made my way to U511, the little room where the on-call chaplain sleeps (if sleep is in the cards). My prayers were answered; the pager didn't beep, and there were no mid-night codes to roust me from bed. Still I couldn't really rest. I dozed, fretful, waking every hour to see if it were morning yet. When my supervisor arrived just before 7am for our meeting, he took one look at me and sent me home.
Unbeknownst to me, what I was suffering was no longer the initial infection, but a radical allergy to the sulfa drugs I had been prescribed. A few days later I visited another doctor, anxious to know what was wrong with me, and as I pushed up my left sleeve for the embrace of the blood pressure cuff I realized I had not laid tefillin in days. The asher yatzar blessing is right: "were one of these closed which should be open, or opened which should be closed, we would not be able to stand before Your throne of glory." When my body wasn't functioning right, my prayer life shrank to one insistent phrase. All I could pray was "please, God, make this go away."
Torah tells us that when Miriam was sick Moses prayed his own one-liner: ana, el na, refa na la -- "please, God, heal her." It is a prayer I often chant to myself as I walk the hospital's halls, a benediction I offer for everyone under the building's drop ceilings and fluorescent lights. It may also be, I realize now, one of the only prayers someone who is suffering can really say.
As an invalid I was a terrible chaplain. Chaplaincy requires us to be fully present, to be open to the needs and the experiences of another, and when I am wrapped-up in my own pain and discomfort that isn't something I can do or be. Too, chaplaincy is physically and emotionally draining. Walking the long halls all night leaves my feet and calves aching, and engaging with tears and prayers all night leaves my heart sore, even when I'm in the best of physical and emotional shape. It is good for a chaplain to have suffered; anyone who is too unfamiliar with pain, physical or emotional, would have a hard time relating to those under her care. But it is not good for a chaplain to be in acute distress at the hour of someone else's need.
Illness shrinks perspective. When the body is suffering, it's hard to feel expansive, to connect with gratitude, or to be mindful of one's place in the tapestry of the world. Thankfully, my allergic response was eventually diagnosed, and treated. I am much improved, and find I am looking deeply forward to meditation tomorrow morning, to Shabbat after that, and to my next on-call shift which begins on Sunday afternoon. Because my body is working again, I can think beyond the confines of my skin. And now perhaps the illness will make me a better chaplain, understanding and compassionate when pain and irritation diminish the worldview of the people I serve. Now that I'm not actually there anymore, I can offer empathy again.