Monday, November 14, 2011
Descending Into Hell
I donned my riding gear, threw a leg over the 'Strom, and hopped on the One-Oh-Seven heading back towards Dee See. My destination was about 45 minutes away, at a local hospital, where one of the members of my former congregation has been for the last month.
This is, let me note, not my job anymore. I know this. I do. But that isn't really what matters, not ultimately.
He never really quite fit in at my old church. He was an older man, big and vigorous and musical, but could be completely oblivious to others. He also had an unfortunate semi-adolescent forwardness around women, one that required me, with others, to sit on him a little bit. But my talks with him, which were frank and direct, both yielded a cessation in behavior and a knowledge on his part that I was looking out for his well-being spiritually.
He never married. He has no kids. His relationship to his family was, where it existed, only marginally functional. His approach to finances was not wise. And his health, over the last year, began to collapse, in that cascading way that bodes ill for life.
It was never quite clear what his diagnosis was, or, at least, he was never clear on it. Weakness begat weakness, and his life spiraled downward into hospitalization, being sent home, and then being re-hospitalized, after which he'd be sent home again, too weak to care for himself. His home descended into squalor. I'd visit, and even though there were provisions for in home care, he'd have not eaten in days.
He had a stroke just after I moved on from my Bethesda church, and I'd visited him. Then the word came that people thought...thought...he was in a coma following a surgery. No-one was quite sure.
So of course, I had to visit. Not because I was his pastor, but because I am the only person who visits him. I got the hospital to confirm that he was there. No other information provided, of course, HIPAA be damned to the hell it inadvertently creates.
I wish he'd been in a coma.
He was, instead, intubated. He was also being fed through a tube. He was catheterized. And he was, despite being too weak to move his arms and unable to speak because of the breathing tube, aware, and in considerable discomfort.
I struggled to find a way to communicate. My ability to lip-read is marginal, and as he tried futilely to speak, I ascertained that wasn't going to work. A few simple questions indicated that no-one had been to see him for a while. I talked for a little bit myself, spinning a simple wordspell of calm, of a beautiful fall and bright crisp days and little country churches that sang the old, old songs. That helped, for a moment or two.
But he again grew agitated, and asked for the writing pad that the nurses had tried to use to reach him. I saw it covered with meaningless chicken scratches. He tried, he really did, to write. But he couldn't. He was simply too weak.
I simply could not understand him. I tried to get him to sound out the letters of what he was trying to tell me. After a minute, only one word: AGENDA.
Is that what you mean, I asked. He nodded. This was what he meant to say. I am still not quite sure what that means.
He began to mouth things animatedly, but I couldn't get most of what he was saying.
Before I left him, I held his hand, and we prayed together. It seemed to help him a bit, and there was little else I could do.
I could not ask after his prognosis at the nurses station, because they are legally mandated not to tell me anything. I could not ask the doctors what the goal of their treatment regimen was, of whether they thought that the tubes and the indignity served any ultimate purpose other than sustaining the organic process of human suffering. I could not ask their agenda.
Though I was his pastor, and am still his friend and his brother in Christ, and he is otherwise alone in the world, that means very little in the American medical system and the laws that now govern it.
HIPAA does not recognize those things as valid categories.
I wonder just how many more souls like him there are, hidden away in the great warehouses for the broken and the alone we have created.