In Part Two of our Minty Fresh interview, Rev. Laura Arnold–former hospital chaplain, current pastor of the Decorah United Church of Christ and Director of Online Learning for the Center for Progressive Renewal–talks compassion fatigue and the spiritual value of blessing colostomy bags. Read Part One of the interview.
Minty Fresh Mysteries (MFM): Many of the chaplains I worked with had keen senses of humor. Do you think that being able to see find the lightness in dark situations is important for the job? Was there a time when finding the humor in a tough situation allowed you or a patient to get through something bad?
Laura Arnold (LA): Humor is absolutely essential for chaplaincy, be that playfulness with patients at times or the use of humor and joking with chaplain colleagues as a way of processing and coping with the situations we are faced with.
One afternoon, I was called to visit with a patient who had just been through a procedure to get a colostomy bag. She was depressed and not sure that God could love her anymore. It was hard to focus on her words as the pressure of her body produced an actively audible gargling bag of waste. “Let’s bless your colostomy bag!” I announced during our conversation. She burst into laughter—roaring about whether or not I’d have to use oil or water, whether I’d have to hold the bag, and whether I could stomach even being in the room much longer with the eruptive gurgling and the stench. I’ll admit it was the strangest idea I’d had in a while, but I’ll tell you it was one of the most remarkable and honest times of blessing and prayer I’ve had. We could be honest as well as playful about the absurdness of the experience, but name that, even in the midst of it, God was there with her.
Playfulness was constantly present with my chaplaincy colleagues. We kept a list of public service announcements that we would occasionally act out. My favorite tales and skits included these: don’t tick off your spouse if they are carrying a
hatchet, but in the event you do, ask them to leave it in your head until you get to the ER; drinking on rooftops is generally a bad idea as is having sex on a bridge without good guard rails; masturbating on the gear shift of your car is generally a bad idea as it leads to an awkward need for Xanax after having your car towed to the trauma bay.
MFM: From TV, we’ve learned important facts about hospitals. For example, thanks to accurate, fact-based documentaries like General Hospital, Grey’s Anatomy, and ER, we know that hospitals are populated almost entirely with hot, young doctors and nurses who all sleep with each other. Did your own experience working closely with doctors and nurses differ in any way from those highly realistic portrayals?
LA: I generally find medical dramas to be a bit over the top and roll my eyes at how they portray reviving folks in cardiac arrest through the cleanest, gentlest looking CPR imaginable (y’all, seriously, it’s intense in person) or portray such mild suffering experience by so many folks in their last bit of life or make it seem like every case has a fully collaborative team of well-rested, properly nourished, Ivy league trained physicians. The reality is that most docs and nurses I’ve worked with are exhausted, emotionally drained, and generally overwhelmed by their patient load. Many experience stressed home lives because of their own compassion fatigue and disconnection with their families, simply because they don’t have one more ounce of energy to give when they get home. I’d love to see a show that grappled with the hard questions nurses and docs face: when ought treatment shift towards palliative care rather than charge on at full steam, what the moral implications of what patients receive kinds of treatment, and how do you help prepare someone to die well? And I’d like a network show to include chaplains. Seriously, how is it that the Colbert Report had a chaplain repeatedly on the show and not one hospital drama does?