The two most difficult populations in the hospital for me were babies and nurses. Babies because as a young woman I had decided that I would not have any. I felt I had no real patience for baby care, and that I wanted to live a life of adventure, without responsibility for a child. Nurses because they tend to be mainstream, conforming, and protective. The two difficulties converged in the hospital’s regional center for babies in trouble, a special ICU for infants.
Many were preemies in isolettes, fighting for life in little spaceship pods. Their bodies were little more than a point of attachment for long spindly limbs. Sometimes the babies were wrapped in foil insulation and then they looked like baked potatoes, about that size.
The nurses were warriors in an atmosphere where battle was joined for the life of every baby no matter what that meant the little creature had to endure or what kind of life it might have in the future. The nurses were alert to everything the doctors said, but their faces told more important things about their babies.
One baby was hopeless. Born with its viscera outside the baby’s body, the infant was inoperable. A plastic bag over the intestines kept in body fluids until the baby could starve to death. The nurses yearned and sweated over that tiny bit of struggling flesh as though enough tenderness could make its parts grow back inside. When it died, they sat down together and wept and wept. Normally they were pretty tough, but this time they lost it.
As chaplain I felt that I should try to comfort them, but they were almost fierce in their desire to get rid of me. I was sterile, barren, and they didn’t think I was clean enough. On entry to the ward one was required to stand at a sink with a foot pedal and scrub one’s hands and wrists with a little iodine-soaked pad like a pot scrubber. They didn’t think I took this seriously enough.
One grieving nurse took pity on me and tried to explain. “We just need to take some time,” she said. “We put in a lot of extra time and effort on this one and it’s hard to give up. We’ll be all right in a day or so. You’re an outsider. This is for insiders. Leave us alone.”
The well babies were quite a different story. That nursery was a joyful place and the nurses were very proud, showing the newborns off. One old lady, faithfully sitting by her husband’s side while he died, would not get exercise she needed. I discovered that she would walk down to the nursery with me so we could look at the babies. When the grief about her husband was intense, I’d say to her gently, “You know, when our time is over, we need to make room for the babies.” When her husband died, she said to me, “He went on so that there would be room for babies.”
A tiny child, more than an infant but not quite a toddler, had been brought in for cleft palate surgery. She was black, very dark, and her upper lip was split up to the nose. She was beautiful in spite of that, with huge eyes and curly hair. When I saw her, the lip and palate had been mended with surgery but not healed. One had to get the formula into her a little at a time. I had almost no experience with feeding human babies, but the nurse said she was so busy that it would be a big help if I would feed that baby, so I sat in a rocking chair to do my best. The baby, frustrated, cried and struggled. It was impossible not to break one’s heart over the little mite.
The mother, very young, didn’t visit much. The nurse, snorting, predicted that she would abandon the baby now that it was safe in the hospital. Happened all the time. The mother wanted me to get her a rosary but said she didn’t have time to feed her baby. (She had no job or other children.)
The nun who managed services for Catholics was very reluctant to give me a rosary. She explained that for many people the string of beads had become a kind of secular magic, far from an aid to disciplined prayer as intended. The predictions of the nun and nurse were accurate. The mother attached the rosary to the crib and we never saw her again. The baby was shifted out to a foster home.
Student chaplains took turns sleeping at the hospital to be on call overnight. Like the intern doctors, we were assigned a little room in a sort of trailer. One didn’t sleep well. It was almost a relief when the phone by the bed rang to alert to an emergency.
About 3AM I was called to go to the newborn ICU where a pregnant woman had been flown in for an emergency C-section. The husband, following in a car, wouldn’t be there for another hour or so. By the time I got upstairs, the baby was in an isolette and looking pretty good. The mother was in ICU and would stay there for a while.
The father arrived, very excited, terribly worried about his wife, and determined that the baby be baptized right now. Baptism wasn’t part of my Unitarian tradition and the nurse was wondering if I would even agree to do it. I suggested to the man that he might want to wait until his wife was awake and his own minister was there. The nurse said the baby was not in danger. And I gently tried to tell him that baptism wasn’t magic. He wasn’t having any of that. To him, I think, the baptism was a celebration of survival. He seemed joyful, not superstitious.
The senior chaplain, a Lutheran, had impressed upon us the importance of the witnessing congregation. He had said that people shouldn’t sneak off secretly for their rituals, but rather share them proudly with other humans. If there were no pre-existing community, he said, assemble one. So the ICU nurses, a cleaning lady, the father and I gathered beside the isolette. Well-scrubbed, I put my hands through the sleeves of the glass box with my little dab of cotton and dripped a crystal of sterile water on the pink baby’s head. She looked at me calmly, untraumatized by birth because of being a C-section.
Just then, the dawning sun broke through the windows and drenched us in rosy light. I said, “This is the day the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it!” We all had tears on our faces. The phrase had been a favorite of my mother, aunts and maternal grandmother, repeated often in my childhood.
My living arrangements that summer were housesitting a series of homes while the owners were on vacation. At this time the house I was living in had a master bedroom built over the garage, like a screen porch out in the treetops. The bed was a heated waterbed. When I got home, exhausted, that blood-temperature bed welcomed me to float among the boughs. Often the best ministries are good for the minister, too.