Monday, September 11, 2006

Day(s) of Remembrance

On occasion I write and share with the staff here at my hospital, a "Word From the Chaplain." These are reflections that seem appropriate to the day or season; and this seemed a very appropriate day for such a reflection. Since, as always, I speak to issues of health care and especially of the care we provide, and to the faith basis of this Episcopal health system, I thought I would also share it here. I hope you find it interesting.

A Word From the Chaplain
September 11, 2006

Today is a day of remembrance. All around us memories are being shared of September 11, 2001, on that day when 3,000 died: where we were, what we were doing, what we expected, what we feared. I was here that day, and I remember that morning, running in and out of the doctor’s lounge to watch, stunned, the televised images of horror. I remember those members of our staff who had someone they believed might be in harm’s way, and how their colleagues picked them up and carried their work, so that they could go home to be with family and wait for news. I remember – but, then, no words can fully convey one person’s experience, much less the many individual perspectives of this shared tragedy.

This remembrance has followed on the heels of another. We have hardly caught our breath from remembering the catastrophe that was Hurricane Katrina, only a year ago beginning on August 29. We watched, stunned once again, the destruction of wind and rain and flood on the Gulf Coast in those days when perhaps 1,800 died. Together we breathed deep in relief when the hurricane passed, thinking the toll was not so great; only to be overwhelmed ourselves, like the levees of New Orleans, when we realized it was not the wind before the storm but the water behind it that would bring the horror. We shuddered again when in less than a month the same coast was struck by Hurricane Rita, taking another 120 lives.

I noted this morning, too, that this followed yet another day of remembrance. Most of you will recall that each year I remember and remark on September 9, when the Episcopal Church and other churches remember those who gave their lives caring for the victims of the 1878 yellow fever epidemic in Memphis, Tennessee, in that summer when 5,000 died. I have written before that I believe we have some fellowship with those Martyrs of Memphis, Episcopalians and other Christians, Jews and others who were not Christian, who gave their lives in their determination to stay and care for others.

Perhaps it seems unexpected to connect these diverse events. They seem so different in cause. What strikes me is how much they have in common. In all three cases death was unexpected and beyond control. It came from the very air. All three involved mass evacuations that for many came too late. And all three affected those who experienced them in ways that shaped generations to come – we know at least that Memphis did, and that we can certainly expect the terrorist attacks of 2001 and the hurricanes of 2005 to do the same.

And all three were marked by those who were willing to come and serve those devastated, even at great risk to themselves. It is for that very service that we remember the Martyrs of Memphis, whom I recall every year as those who gave their lives specifically in providing health care. We know of the many who gave their lives five years ago today, and so many who risked their lives and health that day and for days after. I have visited St. Paul’s Chapel, the Episcopal chapel almost under the World Trade Center towers that miraculously remained after the attack, and that became the center for service to the many police officers, fire fighters, health care providers, clergy, and other volunteers who came to serve at Ground Zero in the days and weeks and months that followed. We have also seen the many professionals and volunteers who reached the Gulf Coast only days after the hurricane, providing rescue and health care and basic needs of living. Indeed, I imagine all of us participated in our own ways to give care or to support care in the aftermath of 9/11 and in the continuing consequences of the Gulf Coast hurricanes.

Too, we have been aware that it is specifically in health care that we recognize how this comes home to us. I recall in the year after the terrorist attacks how we prepared here, with others around the country, for the possibility of weaponized anthrax or of a resurrection of smallpox. Each mass casualty drill since has been based on the possibility of a chemical or biological exposure that might be a terrorist attack – until, that is, this year when we practiced for an earthquake, a disaster as natural and pervasive as a hurricane. We have thought about how we would be at risk giving care, and how those we love might be at risk, whether through disaster at home, or through service abroad. We know that these events, however far away they may seem, have touched us.

I have spoken before of my sense that we have some fellowship when we give and support care with all those others who have also given and supported care. In the Episcopal Church and other Christian communities we speak of “the communion of saints;” but I believe all faith communities and cultures have some language to describe that association with colleagues now and with colleagues who have gone before. In our work here at [our hospital] we share in common cause and common commitment to service with those who have served elsewhere, caring for those sick and injured and devastated by massive disasters, however they occurred.

We speak here of being part of a “faith-based” System, connected with the Episcopal Church. I feel strongly that if being “faith-based” means anything, it means that we see our service in this context: that in the care we provide day to day we share in fellowship with all those who serve and have served, whatever their beliefs, whether more than a century ago in Memphis; or five years ago in New York or Washington or Pennsylvania; or a year ago all along the Gulf Coast. Our daily work, so often taken for granted, shares in the nobility and the value of those acts of grace and heroism, however far away or long ago. To me, that work – your work – in that context is why [our hospital] specifically, and [our system] as a whole, can be “the best place to give care, the best place to get care.”

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