Wednesday, January 14, 2009
Life in the fast lane
Yesterday was one for the books.
It began when I happened to walk into Ms. Conroy's "room" - not an office, exactly, but a "space" of her very own which is very different from my "space."
She had left her EMT squawk box on and, as I walked into the room, it started to crackle and hiss as it does just before an announcement is made.
An overdose. Transporting the patient to a local hospital.
I recognized the address immediately. It was the home of one of my parishioners. My heart sank.
I had been having some growing concern about this particular person. Nothing specific. Just a 'gut' feeling. I had been trying not to 'hover'. Just calling every once in a while. Just to 'check in'. Trying not to feel like a nag.
I found myself suddenly frozen in place. What to do? Strictly speaking, I wasn't supposed to have heard this information. But, and there was no mistake about this, I had. What to do? Now that I knew, no matter how I knew, what to do?
I called Ms. Conroy. We talked. I called a few colleagues. No answer. I emailed a trusted colleague I knew would be online. We strategized.
A plan emerged: I would go to the hospital and, while there, I would check the admission book. Oops! Why look! One of my parishioners admitted through ER. Guess I just better saunter my sassy self over there, right? Just to 'check in'.
I finished getting dressed - no lingering over that second cuppa joe this morning - and braced myself against the frigid weather for the drive over to the hospital.
That's when I met the first wrinkle in my dubious little pastoral plot.
HIPPA. Don't ask me what the acronym stands for. It doesn't really matter. The first letter must stand for "Hell." It's a heinous little federal regulation designed with the best of intentions. And, we all know where that leads (see first letter of the acronym).
It's supposed to protect the confidentiality of the patient. Right. This is not a bad thing. This is a good thing.
However, as my sainted grandmother always said "a little power in the wrong hands can do a great deal of damage." And so it is with HIPPA regulations.
You know, when someone is admitted after a car accident, or a cardiac episode, or a stroke, I flash my little hospital "pastoral care / chaplaincy" badge that has my picture and my name on it, and they clear the decks. I'm in there in a flash amidst the IV poles and cardiac monitors and the blood and the bandages.
Call the boys with the white coats and stern faces from the 6th floor psych unit and you can hear the lock down. The bars go up.
"No," said the lovely volunteer with ancient eyes at the ER Information desk, "I'm afraid we don't have a listing for that person."
"Hmmm . . ." said I. Maybe I got the wrong hospital. The ambulance might have been diverted due to an overcrowded ER. Happens all the time.
So, back I went to my car and drove to another community hospital.
"No," said the lovely volunteer at that ER Information desk, "No listing here."
She was very nice. I'm sure she was telling me the truth. I said, "Do you suppose they might have transferred to the community psychiatric hospital?"
"That may well be," she offered, clearly distressed at my distress.
"Wouldn't that be noted somewhere?" I asked.
"Well, yes . . .actually, it would." Then, she brightened, "How about I call over there and see what I can find out for you?"
I expressed my gratitude as she busily punched some numbers, got put on hold, made a face that expressed her distress at the 'musak' she was being forced to listen to, and then returned to me with disappointing news that my parishioner wasn't listed there.
She read the disappointment on my face and then, lowering her voice, she said, "You know, maybe if you go there, and they see your collar, maybe you'll have more luck." Then she 'mouthed' the (dreaded) word "HIPPA."
So, back into my car (thank goodness I have my hospital badges - I had already saved $6 in parking fees), and off to the psychiatric hospital for which I didn't have a badge, so I checked to make sure I had at least a few dollars in cash.
As I was tallying up the contents of my wallet, I also started to check into my calendar, and noted that my carefully laid out schedule for the day was now in complete shambles.
I sighed deeply. A for effort. F for time management. The report card of a pastor. The story of my life. Sometimes, I endure complete success and utter failure, and sometimes, in the exact same moment. Grrrr . . .
I called my Parish Assistant, made some phone calls, shot off some emails from my iPhone (whatever did we do before this technology?), and then drove to the psychiatric hospital.
Another brick wall. No one was giving me any information. Not whether my parishioner was there. Not if my parishioner wasn't there. Just the stone cold faces with icy smiles and pleasant voices of bureaucracy with a polished, cool, professional capitol "B".
I don't mean this to sound the way it's going to sound, but here it is, anyway: Since when was confidentiality an issue of concern for clergy?
Please don't hear that as arrogance or clericalism or expected, or assumed privilege. It's a cry from my pastor's heart. I mean, just because some well-publicized clergy have crossed boundaries, doesn't me we ALL do. That's a little like saying that just because you've had problems with an adolescent young man, or even a few teen-aged punks, that ALL adolescent young men are bad. Grrrrr . . . .
I got in the car and checked my email. I had blathered a bit of my frustration about the situation in an email on another subject to my Sr. Warden, without breaking confidentiality or giving any specifics, and he wrote back, "Please don't give up. Please keep trying to find our friend."
Of course. Of course. The irony was not lost on me that this person was feeling desperate because of a sense of crushing isolation and desperate loneliness and yet I was desperately throwing myself against not one, not two, but three brick walls, trying to connect. Trying to say, "You're not alone. I'm here. We're here. God's here."
Back in my car. And, just because God has a sense of humor, my phone rang. It was another parishioner. Her daughter was ill and couldn't make the NYC Ballet tonight. Might I be able to join her?
This was so "out of the blue" it was purple! I almost couldn't get my head wrapped around what she was saying. What she was asking. I didn't know how to respond.
So, I laughed. She must have thought I was insane. And, in that moment, if being out of touch with reality is the definition of insanity, it would have been my picture, in the dictionary there, as Exhibit 'A', next to the word 'Crazy'.
I knew I had some diocesan pre-convention convocation something or other and I should go that evening, but you know, right in that moment, an evening at the NYBC with this woman sounded like manna from heaven. I accepted the invitation with absolute delight and gratitude.
I may have been flunking time management, but, to my everlasting gratitude, God doesn't wear a watch.
On the road again. Back I went to the first hospital where I was absolutely certain I would find my parishioner.
The ER staff was not happy to see me. "Let me ask you something," the ER attendant asked icily. "How do you know that your patient is here?"
"My parishioner? You mean to tell me that my parishioner IS here?"
He smirked, "I didn't mean that. I meant, what makes you think your . . . PARISHIONER is a PATIENT here?"
"Well," I fudged, sending up a quick request for forgiveness before I sinned, "A neighbor told me." Well, I assume it was a 'neighbor' who had made the announcement on the EMT squawk box.
"Ah, yes, Chatham," he said, "The posh little suburb where everyone knows everyone else's business."
I almost lost it, but I'm proud to say I didn't. I took a deep breath and then, got his attention, looked into his eyes and said, "Chatham is a community where many people care deeply about each other. Especially in my congregation."
He looked at me with obvious contempt, said nothing and returned to shuffling around his Very Important Paper Work.
It was then that I caught her eye - an lovely Black woman who was beckoning me over to her place behind a partition.
"Give me your cell phone number," she whispered, "I'll make a few phone calls and check on your parishioner. It may take me a while, depending on how quickly my calls are returned. I'll call you, if you don't mind coming back."
"No, no," I stammered, undone by her obvious kindness. A surprise encounter with human kindness always has a greater impact in the midst of cold, hard bureaucratic concrete.
I gave her my business card and circled my cell phone number. "Thank you," I said, aware that my eyes were filling with tears.
She gently took my arm. "If I were that person and you were my pastor, I would want someone to try as hard as you are trying to find me," she whispered.
I left the hospital and got into the office around 11. My poor Parish Administrator! Not only did he have to swing with the curves of my day, he also had to listen to me dump my crap all over the front office. Sainted man, is he.
Memo to self: Give this man a raise at the earliest possible moment.
An hour and a half later, the call came through. I just know she had pulled some strings in some pretty high places, but she got me in.
"Thank you, thank you, thank you," I said to her, then, catching my breath, added, "You know, I feel as if I've been living the Parable of the Lost Sheep. I've left the 99 in search of the 1 and it's been a pretty daunting process. I've got some things to clear off my desk, but I'm on my way."
"You know, Rev," the woman said, "I'd like to think that when Jesus went in search of that one lost lamb, there were some other shepherds in the field, helping him out."
"Ah," I said, "So THAT's how He did it!"
We both laughed and giggled and shared how good God is and how wonderful it is to be sisters and brothers in Christ. I suddenly felt 10 pounds lighter and ready to face whatever God had next in store for me.
Know why? 'Cuz I knew I wasn't alone. I could tell my parishioner that he wasn't alone, either and s/he'd know that I was telling the truth from my heart.
It's amazing how that all works, isn't it?
The ballet? It was COPPELIA, a delightful little piece of Balanchine fluff, something which debuted in Petersburg in 1884 which he adapted and debuted in 1974.
The woman who danced the part of Swanilda was from Salt Lake City, Utah. The man who danced the part of Frantz was born in Madrid, Spain.
I wondered if they ever thought, as little children, that they would one day be dancing with each other on the stage in New York City.
It IS a small world, after all.
Did I mention that the parishioner who invited me just turned 80? She plays tennis three times a week and got frostbite on one of her toes a few years ago playing paddle ball. She bounded up the two flights of stairs to the second tier (our seats were in the first row), like a veritable gazelle, and arrived poised and lovely.
I, on the other hand, was winded. And, I'm in the gym 3 times a week!
We missed the 10:15 train so caught the 10:49 and got home a little before midnight. Six o'clock came very early this morning.
Just another day in the life of a pastor in a sleepy if not fairly posh little suburban community.
Ain't nothing quite like it.
And you know, I wouldn't trade it for all the little ballerinas, cute as they were, on the stage of the NYBC in Lincoln Center, NYC.
Nope, not one.