Saturday, November 10, 2007

One of Those Stories I Tell

It happened early in my career: specifically, in my first CPE residency.

I have long forgotten his name. We can call him Albert. Albert had been admitted to the hospital after being shot in the head. The bullet had somehow not been fatal, but had caused enough injury that Albert needed rehabilitation. This was in the good old days, when a patient entered rehab early in treatment, and would stay until he or she had made all the progress possible. Patients often stayed six to eight weeks, leaving when they could walk out of the hospital, perhaps with a cane.

Albert was an interesting young man. He had immigrated to the United States as a school child, and had grown to his young adulthood here. He was, of course, fluent in English and his native language. He was also something of a mystery: no one was quite sure how he had been shot. He was shot while sitting in his car with his girlfriend when it happened, but no one was certain whether he had shot himself, she had shot him, or there was a third party involved.

Albert, in fact, was something of problem. He was refusing to participate in the therapies of the rehab program. There was no longer a physical reason he couldn’t participate. He simply refused. Indeed, he was refusing to speak English. He spoke with his family in their native tongue, and they reported that he was fully alert and oriented; but his refusal to speak English and to cooperate with his therapies was hindering his work. In team meeting there was discussion of sending him to a nursing home, or to be cared for at home, since there was noting of consequence we could do with him in the hospital.

The day after that meeting, I went in to visit Albert. He had in previous visited noted my presence, and responded with a single word. He had then lapsed into silence, or turned to his family and returned to conversation in his native language. He was speaking with them as I entered, and I didn’t expect anything different about this visit.

Until, that is, I heard The Voice. I had heard that Voice before, perhaps three times. Each time it had addressed a specific call. Each time I had followed, and each time the results had been blessed.

This time The Voice said, “Ask him the question no one will ask him.” I paused, and a question occurred to me – certainly one I expected he hadn’t been asked. I said, “Albert, I have a question.” He looked at me. “I don’t know myself, and I don’t think I really want the experience; and yet I have to admit I’m terribly curious. What is it like to be shot in the head?”

He looked at me curiously. He answered, his English thoughtful and clear, “Well, first there’s a bright flash, and then you don’t feel anything. Then, there’s one hell of a headache.” After he spoke, he turned away from me and began speaking again to his family in the language of his childhood. I stayed another minute or two, and excused myself, almost without being noticed.

Albert never spoke to me again. In his room he hardly responded, and in therapies he simply ignored me. It was as if he wanted no more to do with me.

On the other hand, the next day he began to participate in therapy. He began to work for his own recovery with a commitment that was noted in the next team meeting. It was, therapists said, a remarkable turnaround. He worked hard, and at about six weeks he walked out of the hospital - walking with a cane, but walking nonetheless. Several months later he came back to visit the therapists and nurses, and he didn’t even need that.

I had heard The Voice before that, and I’ve heard it since, if still only a few times. Each time it has addressed a specific call – so specific, for example, that this one was just about Albert. I tried asking a similar question to another patient. I so offended her physician that, in the process of reaming me out on the phone, he committed himself to get all chaplains eliminated from the hospital. Each time the Voice has addressed a specific call; and as I’ve followed, each time the results have been blessed.

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