Finding faith ... in Clinical Pastoral Education


Today, I will finish my clinical pastoral education unit at the new Sanford hospital here in Fargo.

I've spent 16 hours per week, mostly at the new hospital attending to the spiritual and emotional needs of patients, and another 10ish hours per week in group sessions and reading, writing and reflecting about the experience. ... More than 400 hours in all in a four-month time frame. About the equivalent of a full-time job for 10 weeks.

And today it all ends.

It's a bittersweet day. ... Don't get me wrong: It's time for me to be done. Adding this CPE unit on top of family, work and church obligations brought its own challenges, and I'm told that there are some people who live in my house who are excited to meet me. ... They say they're called "family," or something like that. They seem like a neat bunch. I'm looking forward to getting to know them too.

But beyond being mentally and physically exhausted and needing to restore some balance in my life, I know deep down in my heart that I will unequivocally miss it. ... I will miss my weekend shifts on the floor the most. ... Four months is a long time in a lot of ways, and it's even longer when you're spending the time immersed in the many frightening and soul-crushing experiences that you find present in a hospital. After all, there are few situations in which people visit the hospital for a joyous occasion. And so after four months of such intense work, you develop some strong emotional bonds with the folks with whom you work. And you also develop a strong tie to the place itself. ... (Hint: if you've never driven by the new Sanford hospital at night, you ought to try it. It's breathtakingly beautiful!)

When you're in seminary, you hear early on from students further along in the program how life-changing the CPE experience is. But generally it's difficult for them to articulate how it changes your life. ... It's just something that you have to experience, they say. ... And, it turns out they are correct. I don't think there is anything anyone could have said to prepare me for CPE.

No one can prepare you for the first time you're present in a patient's room when they die, or when a grieving family member turns to you to ask, "Why?"

No one can prepare you for the first time you are called in to witness a trauma case, in which an enormous team of skilled, dedicated and compassionate professionals from multiple disciplines shows up to perform medicine of miraculous proportions.

No one can prepare you for the first time you walk onto the NICU unit to pray for a days-old infant who is terribly sick.

Or for the times when you are sitting in a room with someone experiencing spiritual distress and they have no one else to turn to.

There just is no preparation for any of it.

But four months later, I leave with indelible marks on my heart and soul and mind, thanks to the people who have allowed me into their lives to walk alongside them in some of the worst times of their lives.

I also leave with overflowing gratitude for the staffs of the Emergency Department and the ICU floors for taking this rookie under their wing and welcoming me as an equal, as a colleague, into a world in which I was in no way prepared to serve.

Finally, I leave with a ton of admiration for the full-time Sanford chaplains who do this every day, day in and day out, every day of the year. The professionals who were there to listen to me when I had worked with an impossibly complex case and needed to attend to my own grief and spiritual distress. And the same folks who tenderly dropped me encouraging texts throughout the weekend, just to check on how I was doing.

Yes, the CPE experience changes you, but alas I don't know that I've found any better way to describe that transformation than any of the thousands of students who have tread this same path before me.

I don't know how to explain how it changes you when you've been invited into a patient's room to help them try to make sense of their spiritual distress over their complicated medical conditions.

Or how it changes you when you are present for a patient's last breath, and the family leans on you for strength, for guidance, for prayer, for answers.

Or how it changes you when a wife who just lost her husband, who is your exact same age, cries on your shoulder, as their devastated children are right there looking into your eyes.

Or how it changes you when you spend hours sitting in the "Remembrance Room" with a family who has unexpectedly lost a loved one.

Or how it changes you when for the second or third -- or even fourth or fifth -- time in a day you watch the highly skilled ER Trauma team reach into the maw of hopelessness and pull back a medical miracle.

Or how it changes you when you are walking from the hospital cafeteria and a family member of a patient you visited for weeks on end stops you to just say, "Thank you for being with us on this journey," and breaks into tears.

Just how do you measure those kinds of changes? How do you explain them to anyone? ... Maybe you can't. ... Maybe those changes are sacred simply because they are so indescribable. Moments that will be forever etched in only my heart and the hearts of those involved. ... Sacred ground. Every moment of every day that I spent walking the halls of Sanford's hospitals as a chaplain intern was sacred and holy ground. And I will cherish those experiences forever, holding unforgettable memories of so many of those patients and families and doctors and nurses and nursing assistants.

Speaking of which, I never had the nerve to ask any of the medical staff if they hid their super hero capes underneath their scrubs, or left them in their locker before taking the floor. But let me tell you whether the capes are visible or not, these professionals are absolutely on the Mount Rushmore of my secular heroes, and I will never again speak ill of anyone who works in a hospital after witnessing what they work through every single day.

As this internship wraps up, I've been flattered by the fact that many of the Sanford Spiritual Care personnel have asked me when I'm coming back, when I plan to do my next unit of CPE. ... When you spend so much time unsure of the work you are doing, it's a great relief to have people you admire so much give you that kind of affirmation.

And so, who knows. ... Maybe one day, when I'm a little closer to finishing school, when the kids are a little older, when I've had a chance to get back to seeing those soccer and basketball games, and those horse riding lessons and those movies with my wife. ... Just who knows, maybe one day I'll walk through those Sanford doors again as a member of the Spiritual Care team.

It would be an honor and privilege to serve again.

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