By Joy Caires
On my first day in the children’s hospital my only experience with pastoral care in the clinical setting was eleven weeks of clinical pastoral education--in a geriatric psychiatric unit. My seminary education was heavy on scriptural work and theology—light on pastoral care courses beyond the required. I had worked with children as a youth minister, as an assistant teacher at a daycare center and as everybody’s favorite babysitter. At the time, it didn’t particularly occur to me that accepting a position as the only pediatric chaplain at a 244 bed children’s hospital was, well, kind of crazy. But, even if it had occurred to me—well, what else was I going to do with my newly minted collar and newly minted seminary debt?
Minutes into my first day my pager sounded for the first time. The pediatric intensive care unit needed me. I walked briskly towards the elevators, I had not yet found the stairs that were the most direct route from the first floor of the hospital to the pediatric intensive care unit. My heart was thumping in my chest as the elevator doors opened and I swiped my keycard to access the unit. The unit secretary pointed me towards the room where I had been requested. The nurse, who had never seen me before (I had only been in the PICU once before on a quick tour) hastily filled me in on the situation. A car accident late the day before, his mother had died on impact—it would have been better if he had died then as well.
I drew a breath before I entered the room; the child lay prone in the hospital bed. A young woman was at his side. She glanced up, taking in my collar, before turning her face back towards the little boy. I stepped closer to the bed side, his body was connected to IVs, his breathing controlled by machines. But, the tubing was not the worst of it nor was the steady hush of the vent. His head and face were completely covered in gauze-- gauze that despite the best efforts of the doctors and nurses was slowly filling with blood. He had no face. I took a deep breath and my nostrils filled with the tangy iron smell of blood.
“I’m Reverend Joy, the chaplain here…” The woman at the bedside paused and looked at me again…”I’m his aunty.” And, as he lay dying I learned about his life--the bicycle he loved to ride, the video games he played and his easy smile and affection for his family.
Throughout the day, relatives gathered and he continued to bleed. The doctors looked weary and drawn and the smell of blood haunted us. Later in the afternoon the pastor who had come the night before returned. The room ‘s air was thick with grief and I struggled to find my place within that grief--to offer love, perhaps comfort but mostly to be a non-anxious presence in the midst of the pain. But, that was in retrospect, at the time all I knew was the taste of blood and the clear sense that I was needed and wanted in that room. The other pastor was older than me by a couple of decades and I was shocked by her own level of need and her palpable anxiety. As his heart rate continued to drop she turned to me in the midst of the now crowded room. “I think we should baptize him”.
I had never baptized anyone before but I felt very strongly that I would never bring up baptism, much less baptize, unless the family initiated the request. So, I whispered back to her—“we should discuss this outside of his room”. Because she had been there the night before, because it was my first day, because she had been a pastor longer than I, I conceded—she could ask the family.
As we entered the room the boy’s grandmother looked up at us, questioningly. And in response to the question about baptism she replied, “if you think we should”. To which the other pastor perked up and announced that I would baptize him. I hope now that my face did not reflect my anger in that moment….I felt trapped and manipulated. Yet, there was no turning back as I gathered the family around the bedside. I glanced at his covered face and quickly looked away, not wanting to see the ravages where the gauze had slipped. I poured the sterile water into a shell and then slowly let three drops fall into his open palm.
Welcome to the household of God.
I can still taste blood when I think about him.
He died within the hour.
The Reverend Joy Caires, a graduate of Episcopal Divinity School, is currently the Associate Rector at Church of Our Saviour in Akron, Ohio. Joy's first call, after ordination, was as the pediatric chaplain at Rainbow Babies and Children's Hospital in Cleveland, Ohio.