Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The View From a Hospital Bed

It had been just a little over 14 years ago since I was wheeled out of Rio Vista Rehabilitation Center in El Paso. After over 14 weeks of being in a hospital in one shape or another, I was finally free. It was exhilarating even if my body was still feeling the effects of the traumas I had incurred. But I will never forget that day. We stopped and got a Coffee Frappuccino at the Sunland Park Barnes and Noble. It was cold, sweet, ambrosia in my mouth. About 30 minutes later, Judy wheeled the car into the Mesilla Valley Mall in Las Cruces so I could wheel my chair into the Dillards Store to see my daughter Melissa - a joyfully tearful renunion.

Then it was home to the comfortable and familiar surroundings of our beautiful home and my favorite Erkones Stressless recliner. I felt reborn and in many ways, I had been. At least I felt as if I had been given a second chance at living. Still not sure of the outcome of whether I would walk again, it seemed that day like all things were once again possible.

Judy had set up a hospital bed downstairs in the front bedroom. I remember the sweet moments of conversation we had that night. The windows were open and a gentle desert breeze enveloped the room. Even if we would not share a bed that night, it was enough to be home, in the same house, just relishing in each other's presence.

But putting hospital memories behind is not easy. Ever since the accident happened on May 8th, I had been reflecting on the words of Paul to the Philippians. One passage haunted me: "Forgetting what lays behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus." (Phil 3:14)That being said, I knew God had plans for me and that my injuries were behind (kind of). But memories of the hospital ICU, the endless, pain-wrought nights, the fear of the unknown, the dependence on others for my every need, the loss of dignity and modesty, the hard work of rehab, the almost insurmountable tiredness took a long time to die out.

After I resumed my ministry as pastor, I found it hard to even go visit a parishoner in the hospital; particularly if they were in an ER trauma bay or an ICU wing. The smells, the beeping monitors, the business of nurses and doctors, all resurrected strange, ominous feelings from the past.

It's taken about 14 years for me to be able to walk confidently into a hospital room. While identifying with the pain, fear or frustration of the patient I was visiting, my compassion was mixed with personal feelings of dread and negative memories. I guess some people may call it Post-Traumatic-Stress-Disorder. I don't know if that is accurate. I do know that those memories and feelings have never left and it has just been recently that I have been able to really suppress them.

So last weekend proved to be a battle of common sense versus those memories. I had come home early from Men's Bible Study. I had gone out at 5:45 am to play golf with two other guys and by the time I had finished the 7th hole, I was aching, tired, and feeling miserable. I went into Bible Study and couldn't stop shivering. So, with a little encouragement from the "guys," I went home early and went to bed. Through the day my fever climbed proportionately to the growing redness on my lower right leg. By later that evening, my fever had spiked and I was miserable. So I just took more Ibuprofen and bundled up, trying to shake off what I thought was a case of the common flu.

By Sunday night, the redness and swelling had continued to spread upward and my fever had spiked again. So, against my dread and discomfort, I agreed to go the hospital ER.

The short story is that I had cellulitis - a bacterial infection of the tissue beneath the skin. It can be dangerous if left untreated and I was grateful to get on some potent IV antibiotics right away and then to be admitted to Enumclaw's gorgeous new, state-of-the-art hospital; St Elizabeths.

Though the experience brought up lots of past and painful memories, I was overwhelmed by the tender, skilled care of the nursing staff; the knowledge and wisdom of the Drs. on duty and by the overwhelming outpouring of love, support, friendship in the form of visits, cards, calls, flowers, and even Starbuck's Coffee. It is humbling to be bed-ridden and sick; dependent on the ministrations of others. That is where the past memories lie.

But it is humbling also, in another, more positive way, to be on the receiving end of people's compassion, love and care. I think that in the 14 years since my last hospitalization, this short stay pointed out that I had anesthetized myself to what it feels like to be a patient in a hospital bed.

So even though it brought back some difficult painful memories, it also reminded me that it is an amazing, humbling, gratifying thing to be part of the family of Christ and to receive such attention, love and care.

This line of closing comes from a prayer, delivered over the public intercom at the hospital by Glori Schneider, the chaplain at St. Elizabeths.

"You see the messiness of our lives and You desire to lift us above it. You see our woundedness and long to love us into wholeness. Lord, just for today may we be aware that it is possible to heal our world by caring about the one next to us. That our hands can be your hands and our words can be your words if our hearts are willing to be use by You to bring love and healing into this world. You, Holy God, 'love each of us as if there were only one of us.' Lord help us do the same."

Thanks to all who prayed, visited, called or sent cards. May we be to each other the hands and words of Jesus to the ones next to us.

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