Twenty-four hours on-call. At the hospital. Not as long as one of my colleagues who this very same weekend is doing forty-eight (yes, two days straight ~ not to mention Monday through Friday on either side). This, apparently, is the life of the Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) student. Some of my colleagues spread across the U.S. are not assigned on-call duties, though most are. Some get to do them from home, available by phone. The majority of us, it seems, must do some version of long – LONG – L O N G hours on site, in-house ~ whatever you want to call it.
I like that I must meet this obligation in person. It’s an honor. It’s daunting. It’s captivating. It’s exhausting. And exhilarating. It can be intense. It can be tedious. It can be both in one shift, though never at the same moment.
It certainly is a very real, very in-your-face kind of way to practice being in each moment. Right now, I am here, writing this post. Right now, I am writing this post. [In one short moment, the beeper could scream awake, and then everything shifts: pace, focus, bodily needs, movement, attention, availability.] Right now, I am writing this post.
I notice the opportunity for mindful practice during the time supposedly available for sleeping – what you “civilians” might call nighttime. I have found that I keep myself awake because I spend each moment as the-beeper-might-go-off-so-worry-about-it-now, rather than each-moment-laying-in-bed-is-a-now-of-possible-sleep. Or just simply: sleep.
I am fortunate. In our program, we have a dedicated sleep room just for overnight chaplains on call. [This is not true of every program.] It has a bed, a door, a shared bathroom with a cool locking mechanism so that if you are in it, you can press a glowing button and electronically lock the other room’s access to avoid awkward encounters. It has a phone, which is essential. It has a computer, which doesn’t work. It is in the bowels of the hospital, so it’s good not to be easily creeped out by isolated underground passages. The lights work. The environmental services folks do an excellent job of clean sheets and towels, for which I am thankful.
It can be loud at night, as other on-call overnighters are called out or return from being paged, doors opening and slamming shut. That part, and the whole I’m-not-sleeping-in-my-own-bed part is a visceral connection with the patients we serve, whose nights are full of unbidden and frightening noises, strangers interloping in their space, and a general sense of get-me-out-of-here. My small foray into discomfort and disorientation is a gift of empathy for me towards patients I am intent on serving.
I have learned that On Call means: sleep when you can, go to bed early, even if you think you aren’t tired, because you just may busy from 9:30 pm until 2:17am and then again the beeper may also wake you madly at 3:53am. [And hopefully doesn’t go off at 7:57am when your shift was supposed to end at 8:00…]
On this day, following days of grey and rain, the morning started grey and cloudy, but by this afternoon, the sun burst through. So far on this shift, there have been hours when I have not been paged. So I spent some time outside, in the sun and fresh air, in the hospital’s healing garden. It is located on the roof of the emergency department — which is just plain good karma given how much trauma takes place in the space below. The garden contains meticulous landscaping, offering patients and visitors an escape from the hub-bub of the hospital without actually leaving it. Right now, there are whimsical artifacts of a recent wholesome competition among different hospital departments who created planters representing their individual purpose – for instance, the cardiac team created a planter that has a painted wooden heart that has been sewn up.
Also part of the healing garden is a stone labyrinth. On the second day of my CPE program, which feels like months and months ago, but was only three and a half weeks ago, our whole group walked the labyrinth together, a wonderful ritual to bind us and our holy work this summer. My guess is that we will, in seven weeks’ time, spend our last hour together unbinding us in the very same way.
Today, neither to bind or unbind, I walked the labyrinth. I practiced resolve in walking the slow pace. I practiced resolve in walking each step, not the next one, but this one. I practiced resolve in being there, standing on these stones, not tumbling forward into the possibility of the beeper beeping me away. I felt the breathe enter my body and leave it, felt the breeze surround my body, the universe breathing me in, breathing me out.
It is a blessing to be doing this work.