One of my young former parishioners from All Souls, Berkeley, served in the Sojourn Chaplaincy at San Francisco General Hospital last summer.
This is as hard-core urban a hospital as it gets; gunshot wounds, HIV/AIDS, car wreck traumas and more are all part of daily life at San Francisco General.
Her name is Phoebe Dixon, and she is now starting her second year at Bates College in Maine. By any outward measure, Phoebe is young to be in such a chaplaincy, and many an older person I know would have wilted in such a setting.
Yet, if you know Phoebe, you would know that this chaplaincy was meant for her, and her for it. Her inner spirit shines forth, and she has an extraordinary way of touching the heart of everyone she meets. I was very honored to be asked to write a letter of recommendation for her to Sojourn. She served this past summer at San Francisco General soon after the completion of her freshman year in college. She wrote this description of her experience and sent it to me earlier this week. She gave me permission to share this with you:
A couple of months ago, when I started volunteering as a chaplain intern at Sojourn, the multi-faith chaplaincy at San Francisco General Hospital (SFGH), I noticed people wearing sweatshirts that had “As Real as it Gets – San Francisco General Hospital” written on the back. This tag line has stayed with me all summer. SGH is the public hospital for the City and County of San Francisco and is located in the Mission District of the city. Given that SFGH is a public hospital, there is a very diverse set of patients, including the marginalized, the homeless, and those who suffer from mental illness or substance abuse. It also is the Trauma 1 center serving everyone from northern San Mateo County to Napa County.
During the months I was a chaplaincy volunteer, I witnessed a wide range of illnesses, wounds, and other crises. At first I was afraid that the open sores or missing limbs would be the hardest obstacle I would have to overcome; however, I was wrong. For most patients the physical pain is eased with medication, but the emotional pain is left untouched. As a chaplain intern, my role was to help ease the emotional burdens that patients carried. Like all chaplains, I listened to patients tell their life stories. I heard their frustrations, the sadness and the loneliness they face, and the fear many of them hold about their futures. Chaplains take everything the patients will give—pain or fear or regret—and we hold it for them. Imagine going into a hospital room and carrying an empty basket. You sit down and are ready to fill your basket with whatever the patient gives you. The patient may give you anything from leg pain to fear about death. You gather all of that pain and fear and hold it in your basket, relieving the patient for a short time. Besides offering an empty basket, so to speak, we chaplains help the patients incorporate the injury or illness they are suffering from into their life story.
After a week or two of being a chaplain I realized how much I enjoyed working in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU). I loved the urgency of the unit and, more importantly, I loved hearing the stories from the patients and their families. It was from the people I met in the ICU that I learned the most about being a chaplain. I learned that the simple act of listening can do wonders for a family member whose child is comatose. I learned that for some patients, just hearing a voice is comforting and reassuring. One woman I visited frequently had been intubated; that is, a tube had been placed down her throat so that she could not speak. Every time I went to see her, she would greet me with a big smile. At the end of our visit, after I had prayed aloud for her, she would not let go of my hand, and when I had to leave, her eyes would tear up. That woman also taught me that sitting with someone in silence can be just as helpful and comforting as a conversation can be. The stories I heard from family members in the ICU were humbling. The frustration I felt from that morning’s traffic jam would disappear when I heard from a family that was faced with taking a loved one off of life support. I heard lots of grief from family members in the ICU, but never before have I seen such strength in someone who was faced with such hardship. These families were so hopeful; they could see a light in a tunnel that most people would consider completely pitch black.
I later learned that all those sweatshirts, the ones that read “As Real as it Gets – San Francisco General Hospital,” are for a fundraiser for the ICU. The ICU is pretty ‘real’ and I definitely got a taste of reality when I was there. I am not saying that car crashes, head injuries, or the terminally ill are the only things that define what is ‘real,’ but rather, those things play a role in what reality can hold. Throughout my summer as a chaplain, I had the privilege of learning about a whole new world: a world of compassion and listening, of hope and faith, of strength. I saw a world that has light in even the darkest places imaginable.