Life Support

While walking in the midst of the angst and 'shtuff' of life, feeling pretty pouty and filling out an invitation to my own pity party, Spirit decided to give me a much-needed kick in the seat of the pants.

It was a bustling morning at work with phones ringing, people stopping by and the over-flowing mail inbox.  I was juggling things pretty well, I thought.  I was finishing up a call on the cell phone as my 11:00 a.m. appointment arrived and I ushered her in.  As I was winding up the call, Eileen and Joni walked into my office with a focused energy that I could sense was different. Eileen was waving a little piece of paper to me and motioning with serious intention.  I quickly excused myself from the call and asked what was going on.

Eileen said that a social worker from Enloe Hospital just called desperately trying to find a minister to offer spiritual support to someone who was about to go off life support. Okay....

I took the note and dialed the number.  Liam told me that he was going down the list and no one was available to be with a family who made the decision to pull life support. It didn't take even a second to know that of course I would go.  "I am not dressed today like a minister. I am in jeans and a T-shirt because we were doing a cleaning project here at church."  "I don't think the family will care" he said.

"I'm on the way."

I looked at Rev. Connie and asked her if she had time to join me. I don't think she had time to think it through as I grabbed her hand and we were on our way.

Making good time we arrived and I set an intention to find easy and (free) parking. We sailed up to the ICU department and we were ushered inside before I knew it.  I introduced us to the social workers and he said the family was waiting for us in the room already.

Deep breath. Open the door. Instant ministry.

Surrounding the man in the hospital bed who was attached to wires, tubes and monitors was a family in emotional distress.  As I walked into the room, I suddenly realized that unlike my standard practice, I had not prayed us in before we entered. Gratefully, God went in before me to make easy the way.

I walked over to the surprisingly composed woman at his bedside as I began to introduce myself and Rev. Connie.  "My name is Dixie Cargill and this is my husband, Jimmy."  I smiled.  Dixie's sister was standing on the other side of the bed and she looked more distraught.  There were children and grandchildren who came to say their farewells.

I did not ask any medical questions about Mr. Cargill's condition; nor why or how they came to this difficult decision. The sister mentioned something about his smoking and the difficulty this past year.
I asked Dixie to tell me about her husband and in particular, his faith or religion.
She shared that although she was a devout Christian, her husband was not as strict and believed you didn't have to go to church to find God. Again, I smiled. It was becoming clearer to me why I was 'called' to this scene.

The family although understandably distraught had found clarity and strength in this decision. I could see that they indeed had given Jimmy "permission to go."  This is a very critical and yet delicate step in the dying process. Ask any hospice attendant or member of the clergy.  If key members of the family are unwilling to allow the patient to die, that person can often hang on to threads of life beyond their time to be here.  Dixie assured me that her husband had made it clear to them before that he did not want to have any further extraneous efforts to keep him alive when the time came.

I leaned in to Mr. Cargill and introduced myself. His eyes were closed but he was not in a coma; nor was he fully conscious. Yet, I knew he could hear (or feel) me.  A prayer began to speak itself through me and as it did the family members encircled the bed and we all held hands and touched Mr. Cargill where and how we could.  It was profound.

When I was done, the nurse walked back in and Dixie said it was time to remove the life support systems.  I was so impressed and awed by her clarity and strength of purpose; and her great love for her husband.

It was while we were waiting for the nurse to return that we began a casual conversation. I mentioned to Dixie that she shared my mother's name.  I learned that they, too, came from Southern roots as did my family.  We also lived in nearby areas in Southern California years ago. Small world. One world.

It could have been a scene from any top hospital drama series on television. Yet, this scene was real. We all took a breath and the nurse extracted the life support. Everyone again encircled the bed and began crying and talking to Jimmy and saying their farewells.  They became entranced with the numbers on the monitors waiting to see if there would be an indicator of when Jimmy was actually gone.  I shared with them that you can't look to the monitors for that. It was up to God and Jimmy now just how much time he needed to be able to make this transition.  It could take moments or hours. Everyone took another breath and surrendered to what was clearly out of their control.

At that point, I felt my work was done and they needed their privacy.  I hugged Dixie goodbye thanking her for the privilege of letting me share this most intimate time and that my only regret was not having had a chance to meet Jimmy before now.  It was her turn to smile.

Life support.
It means different things to different people at different times.

That's what I thought I needed before I got the phone call from the hospital. Then I got to see what it really meant.

It wasn't the tubes, the wires and medications that was keeping Mr. Cargill physically alive in his body; but the amazing love of his family that supported him as God's grace came to lift him and carry him "home."  Life support was about the relationships and interactions and life experiences that tallied up into one man's lifetime.

Humility and gratitude exuded through me as I remembered what real life support is all about. What a blessing it was that none of the other clergy in town had been available to answer The Call.

Thank you, Mr. Cargill and Godspeed.

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