I am learning that the journey towards healing and wholeness is anything but linear. It is not like getting on a train at Euston through to Wolverhampton where you arrive on time, refreshed and uninterrupted by such things as leaves on the line or the wrong type of snow. No, it is a chequered ride with unexpected delays and even the occasional derailment necessitating a substitute bus service.
I first reflected on this Vocation to heal almost three months ago. At the time of writing then I was just about to return to hospital for a gall bladder removal or to give it the proper term a cholecystectomy. That procedure did go well requiring only a half day in hospital and a straightforward recovery period. I experienced great kindness and courtesy in hospital not least from the two recovery nurses who took care of me after the surgery. I fell into conversation with one of them as she attended to my still immobile body. I asked her if she enjoyed her job. Her immediate reply was refreshing and heart-warming as she responded to my question with, ‘I love nursing.’
This was a vocational statement, it came unfiltered from her core and it showed in her courtesy, kindness and attention. The American Pastor Frederick Buechner describes vocation as ‘the place where your deepest longings and the world’s great needs meet.’
There was, however, a small cloud on my horizon. Though the surgery had been successful a further tidying up procedure would be necessary to finish off what they couldn’t quite achieve in surgery. I’ll spare you the details not least because I don’t quite know how to put it into words myself! Nevertheless, as I said, the recovery went well even to the point where I was able to swim 22 lengths again the day before this second procedure was due.
On the morning of my return visit to Russells Hall hospital I felt well even though a little apprehensive about what lay in store for me. My consultant talked me through what would happen, he outlined the risks involved as they are required to do explaining that though there was a risk of something else being set off by this procedure, it was very small. I should have known that even as he looked me in the eye, I would be one of the one or two in a hundred to whom this happens. The result being that later that evening I was being transported to back to hospital by ambulance with acute pancreatitis. An eight day stay in hospital followed which was eye opening. The first four of these days had me ‘nil by mouth’ negotiating my way around the ward attached to a saline drip.
The last time I had a hospital stay was in 1982 around the birth of our second daughter. Life on the ward was challenging, not least because it is strange sharing intimate space with three other patients who are strangers and their attendant visitors. A daily visiting period of eight hours was also challenging and mitigated against any possibility of rest during the day. As was the television being on all day whether people were watching it or not, though as my stay went on, I did get some control over that!
I reflected on the need people seemed to have for a constant stream of noise in the background, quiet times quickly became filled with chatter, and I wondered why we find it so difficult to simply sit with quiet either on our own or in the company of others. Even in church life when we gather for worship, we find it hard to hold quiet or silence. Sometimes when I am presiding at the Eucharist it surprises me to realise that after people have received the bread and wine of Holy Communion they return to their seats and simply chatter rather than enter into quiet contemplation and open themselves to the still small voice of God.
There were times in hospital when I felt I was on an emotional and psychological roller coaster sometimes at rock bottom when all I could do was weep and silently cry out to God. On a few occasions this led to some important encounters with medical staff. I can recall times when I simply started crying while a nurse was carrying out routine observations; each time they paused, positioned themselves lower than me and listened with empathy, validating my feelings. These five-minute encounters felt lifesaving. When I said to one nurse ‘I don’t think I can take any more I think I need to discharge myself’ she replied by saying, ‘well you could, but you’ve come so far and I’d hate for you to have to come back and start all over again.’ This caring response made me realise I needed to stay in hospital but that it might also do me good to get outdoors and off the ward when the weather permitted to enjoy the barest of hospital gardens.
When I left hospital, I was aware that I was leaving in better shape clinically than when I arrived but with much to process and grateful for the quiet of home. On my discharge letter the doctor described me as a ’65-year-old sweet lady’ – probably the only time I’ve been described as sweet in my life! And I know my attitude in hospital wasn’t always ‘sweet’.
Most of the time I experienced caring and diligent nursing staff who have to turn up daily to minister to ‘us’ the general public. I was thankful too that thanks to our NHS I didn’t lie in hospital counting how many saline drips, morphine shots and consultant visits I worked my way through knowing that they would appear on an itemised bill at some point after discharge. Neither would I be charged for having called an ambulance as I would have been if I was a resident in the USA. I was acutely aware that I wouldn’t be leaving hospital to face a bill that might bankrupt me, which is the fate of many who live in countries without a health care safety net. The food was fair enough and free and small kindnesses meant a lot. On my first morning a nurse asked if I wanted a wash, I did I told her but didn’t have anything with me yet, not even a toothbrush. ‘Don’t worry’ she replied, ‘I can get you all of those.’ So, along with towels, sachets of shampoo, body wash, toothpaste and toothbrush appeared, plus shaving cream. The shaving cream was a mistake she hastened to assure me.
At the point of writing I am still off work journeying through the healing process which is, as I said at the beginning, anything but linear. But trying to remind myself daily to be thankful and prayerful for those who carry out with honour their vocation to heal. Reminding myself also that healing comes in a variety of ways, among them walking in God’s good creation, not least in our own local Himley Park.