In the hospital, chaplain services are available 24/7. This means chaplains rotate working the overnight shift. At 5pm when the rest of the chaplains leave for the day, we wish our lone overnight on-call colleague a “blessed night.” This is generally thought to be code for a “quiet” night, meaning they will not get a call.
The night shift, after the visitors and other staff have gone home, is different. The lights are dimmed, the halls are quiet – it feels surreal, like you have entered a sacred space – and somehow you know you are right where you are supposed to be.
Overnight chaplains do not go looking for trouble. Instead, holed up in the on-call sleeping room, chaplains await the urgent calls from the floors. No one likes to be awakened in the middle of the night. When a call comes, we know it is not for nothing – the middle of the night stuff is deep.
A mom whose daughter has just been raped, sits anxiously outside the exam room door in the emergency department. The chaplain sits calmly down beside her. It is dark, it is quiet, except for the restlessness of mom’s anxious thoughts as they tumble out in words that trip over each other with no direction, no sense of purpose, in the middle of the night.
The overhead speaker announces a code blue, the Vocera (our messaging device) raucously confirms the code blue. From all over the hospital, the medical team rushes in. The patient is resuscitated but on life support. The family is awakened to this news in the middle of the night. The chaplain awaits the family’s arrival and sits with them as they say their last goodbyes. There is prayer, but it is mostly presence.
A young man with a worn out and failing liver is on the brink of death. It has come down to this night. His family gathers to decide if they should continue to fight or let him go peacefully. The family looks to the chaplain for words of wisdom or a magical prayer that will deliver them from this living nightmare. There are no words, there is no magic. The chaplain is present with them as they come together on their decision, in the middle of the night.
Opting for The Gift of Life, a family makes the choice to offer their loved ones organs so another might have a second chance at life. It is midnight when the patient is wheeled to the operating room, the chaplain accompanies the family on the honor walk – the procession to the operating room. The hallways are lined, on both sides, with staff as the patient and family pass. The patient is wheeled into the OR and the family melts in grief at the door – no one moves for a full five minutes. It is beautiful and awkward, touching and heart wrenching. And then, just as a flash mob ends, the night shift returns to their stations. The halls go quiet again, after all, it is the middle of the night.
I don’t like to be awakened in the middle of the night. I pray for a blessed night and that is exactly what I get, every time. If I sleep it is a blessing. But even if I am awakened by the shrill sound of my Vocera, alerting me to an emergent need, once I am up, there is no place else I would rather be. It is surreal and sacred, and I am still blessed to be the holder of space for people in crisis – even in the middle of the night.