Spiritual Life

Machines aid hospital care, but the heart is people caring for people

There are a lot of machines in a modern hospital. Sophisticated and expensive, they can do remarkable things for people.

X-ray, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), and computerized tomography (CT scans) are but a few ways machines help us “see” inside a human body. There are pumps that support the heart, lungs and kidneys. There are surgical robots that, while guided by surgeons, do the “work” of seeing internally with 3-D cameras, cutting, removing, and cauterizing – usually with reduced invasiveness and trauma to the body. There are even machines that do CPR.

However, while the hospital is a rather mechanized place, the fact is the delivery of healthcare is about people helping people. It’s about skilled people caring for scared people.

It’s also about a shared vulnerability in the face of human morbidity (risk of illness) and mortality (risk of death). To face and engage the pain, distress and suffering of another human being is enormously challenging and demanding on caregivers.

The problem is not that there are stressors in providing healthcare; that is a given. The problem is the lack of counter-balances to the normal (or abnormal or paranormal) stressors.

Think of a teeter-totter at the playground. When the stressors “press down” on caregivers, there must be sufficient refreshers “pressing down” to balance. The challenge is to avoid either side resting on the ground and thus dominating the situation. The goal is to maintain dynamic, flexible balancing.

Here I describe one new refreshment ritual to counter-balance stressors: a “post-code pause of respect.”

When a patient’s heart stops and resuscitation efforts are warranted, a multidisciplinary team of “code responders” rapidly attempts to circulate the oxygen-carrying blood via CPR, while striving to stimulate the heart to resume functioning. It’s a traumatic time. Occasionally the heart starts beating again. Often the heart is unable to respond to the many interventions, and at some point the efforts are stopped and the patient is pronounced dead.

However, at the moment of death, rather than rushing off to resume caring for others as if nothing had just happened, the code team pauses to pay their respects to the now-deceased person lying before them. A situation-specific form of the following statement is read aloud:

“May we pause briefly … to honor the life of (patient’s name) … which has now ended. She was somebody’s mother, wife, daughter. Though she has died, we are grateful for the privilege to have served to the best of our ability. … As we prepare to go and serve others, may the sacredness of this moment bless each of us on our way.”

No machines here. Nothing but humans caring for a fellow human, and now honoring that sacred moment of transition that fascinates and terrifies us all. A Pause of Respect. A pause to reflect, to breathe out distress and breathe in desire.

There will be more caring to be done, with and without machines. This brief ritual is one way to deepen and enhance caring, and thus counterbalance the stress that comes with it.

Timothy J. Ledbetter, DMin, BCC is an American Baptist-endorsed professional chaplain and member of Shalom United Church of Christ in Richland. Questions and comments should be directed to editor Lucy Luginbill in care of the Tri-City Herald newsroom, 333 W. Canal Drive, Kennewick, WA 99336. Or email lluginbill@tricityherald.com.