I crouched on my knees with paper towels underneath them. I held my hair back with one hand, while I braced myself with another on the stall. My stomach turned, and my breakfast went in the opposite direction it was supposed to. I tried not to touch anything. Bathrooms are gross, but hospital bathrooms are on another level. My stomach flipped one more time. I wiped my mouth with some toilet paper, stood to my feet and flushed the toilet. As I emerged from the stall, I saw my reflection. My hair was a mess and I could see sweat beads on my brow and upper lip.
This was my dream job.
In college, my advisor had told me I needed a back-up plan. Child life is super competitive, she warned. I’ve never seen anyone be successful.
I told her, my name was Crystal, I was going to be a child life specialist and I’d be her first success.
Now…staring at my reflection in the mirror, I wondered where my success had gotten me. 2 shifts out of 4, I threw up in the bathroom before I bounced into the ER as if nothing had happened. As I spent most of my hours preparing kids for stiches or casting, I simultaneously readied myself for the eerie alarm that could sound at any moment alerting me that a trauma was rolling in.
A kid who drowned
A child struggling to breathe.
A kid who fell through a glass table.
A teen with cancer whose disease bullied them to death.
My body stood at attention ready to respond. What heartbreak would I witness tonight? What trauma would I walk into the middle of? How could I embody peace amidst such chaos. And then sneak away to cry in the dirty toy closet or creepy stairwell.
6 months into my first job, I can remember asking my co-workers when they stopped being nervous coming to work. They were vague and stated they couldn’t remember. I thought they were being jerks and withholding important information. Until the day, I realized I hadn’t thrown up in a while. I had forgotten too.
I wasn’t sure if that was a good or bad thing.
You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me (Psalm 139).
As I walked through the ER hallways, I thought about that verse and imagined God looking at me. As I meandered from room to room with crying children, some screaming.
You hem me in?
When I’d read those verses before, I imagined God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit acting like I used to as a camp counselor. One counselor in front of the crew of children I was herding. Another counselor in back. And then another wrangling somewhere along the way.
You lay your hand upon me… I imagine the gentle counselor putting his hand on the child’s shoulder gently coaching them, getting them where they needed to be.
Is this where You pictured me, God?
Is this what You meant when You showed me this career?
Did You plan for me to be here?
Another hard shift.
I stood in the morgue pacing. There were two deaths occurring that night. One in the ICU, one in the ER. I stayed with the family from the ER while my social work and chaplain friends went to the ICU. This left me solo in the morgue with the family. I felt trapped.
In the morgue, there are 2 rooms. The fridge room and the family room.
The fridge room is sterile.
Giant refrigerators with bodies in them. Little bodies.
There is a table under the lights, and it has a drain underneath.
There is a sink and a cabinet along the back wall.
And there is a desk with a computer and phone. What a weird place to put a desk.
The family room has comfy couches, coffee tables, and soft lighting with lamps.
There is artwork hanging of a peaceful meadow.
They chose sage green for the walls.
And then there was the display table.
The table where they lay the child who died.
I waited for my relief. My team left me about 2 hours before, and I painstakingly watched the clock hands move as if through molasses.
I paged the social worker—Done yet? When does Susan come on shift?
Please answer me, I beg silently.
It is the Lord who goes before you. He will be with you; he will never leave or forsake you. Do not be dismayed (Deuteronomy 31:8).
Lord, I’m in a freaking morgue? By myself. Are You here? Do You see this?
More and more family members arrived.
Some were weeping; some were angry. The mom sat; and then stood. She paced. Guttural sounds came from her body that were animalistic. The sound of grief. Some family members sat in silence, and some asked questions frantically. They never really listened to the answers offered, they just vomited out their words aimlessly.
I get it.
I have those questions too.
I don’t understand it either.
As acquainted with death as I am, I don’t understand.
My hardest night.
It was my 2nd to last shift before leaving this place I’d work for almost a decade.
I was paged STAT to the ICU.
ICU pages usually meant death. Someone was coding. A sibling had arrived who needed to be prepped to say goodbye. Family was there to do a handprint, footprint or cut a lock of hair. These memory making activities were done because the family needed to leave the hospital with something. They couldn’t take their child with them, but they could take that. It always felt too small. A terrible consolation prize.
I crouched over my computer, stuffing a gummy bear in my mouth with a swig of water (#yumdinner). I looked up the room number and called the nurse to see what I should bring with me. I saw the name of the patient—my heart sank, tears filling my eyes to the brim.
Sam was one of my closest patients from my days in oncology. I worked there for four years, and I met him on my first week. He had been four years old at the time.
He was the first child I did medical play with.
He was the first child I taught about cancer and chemotherapy and bone marrow aspirations. Words you wished a four-year-old never had to know.
He was the first bald child I ever fell in love with.
He was not my blood, but he felt like mine.
The nurse didn’t answer. I felt rage bubble up in my chest as I imagined walking in on doctors doing compressions. Or seeing my favorite Sam with no life in him anymore. I was 48 hours away from leaving this place.
Why would You allow this?
I wiped away my tears aggressively, gathered some bereavement books, a hand mold kit, ink pads and a canvas…all the things I might need. I could barely choke back the tears.
I was so mad as I approached the basement elevators. As the silver doors closed, I began to weep. And I began to pray. “If he is dying, You and I are going to have a conversation.”
The elevator ride took a long time.
I was thankful; I was gasping through my sobs.
As I walked onto the ICU unit, I wiped my cheeks with the back of my hand and the snot from my nose with my sleeve.
I blinked my eyes until the remaining drops went back inside.
I took a deep breath and walked with a fake confidence.
I prayed internally as I rounded the corner.
Please don’t let him die.
Please don’t let him die.
Please don’t let him die.
As I sanitized my hands, knocked on the door and gently opened it, I saw Sam sitting up, crying, and yelling at his Nintendo.
Tears appeared again. “Hi, bud.”
“Hey, Crystal. This stupid game won’t work,” Sam stated, frustrated.
My STAT page was to help my little friend get his game working so he could endure being in the hospital alone another night of his little life. I was thankful I didn’t have to do a handprint on his lifeless body. I was thankful I didn’t have to coach his siblings in how to say goodbye. I would have been terrible at that. I didn’t know how to say goodbye to Sam.
As I left his room in search of a new game, Sam said the kindest words I’ve ever known.
“Thanks, Crystal. You make things better, even when you’re not here.”
I choked out, “Thank you,” and scurried out the door as more tears fell effortlessly down my cheeks.
The next shift ended around midnight. I said a few goodbyes to nurses and doctors. I gave a few hugs. I gathered my things from my desk:
Pictures of my patients.
Pictures of my co-workers.
Favorite books and hand-written thank you notes with glitter and stickers on them.
I put my keys and my name badge in my mailbox. The picture on the badge was faded and worn. My thumb rubbed the imprint as I remembered how young I used to be. How naïve.
I walked out a series of doors leading out to the main entrance; they all locked behind me.
I smiled goodnight to the housekeeper as he waxed the floor. I waved goodnight to the concierge who greetedfamilies as they arrived. And I began my trek across the ½ mile sky bridge to my car.
Memories swirled in my brain. Little faces. Little laughs. Little lives.
As I’ve gotten older, slowed down enough to grieve the sad things, I’ve had to remember God with me there. In between the steel walls of the hospital. I had to picture Him there with me.
When I was young, I didn’t see Him. But, if His Word is true, He was, whether I acknowledged Him or not.
Every shift. Every set of stitches. Every port-teaching.
He prepared me to be with those families.
To speak whatever words were necessary. To hold hands and offer Kleenex. To wipe tears and rock children to sleep. To walk parents out to cars with empty car seats. He was there…
I never felt prepared.
I never felt like I did it right.
I would hold back tears so the family could have theirs.
I would offer my heart because theirs was broken.
And God was there to hold me. He was there to let me cry with Him. To let me rage. To wail like a mom who lost her kid. To comfort me and rock me and let me attack Him with questions that I didn’t hear answers to. He was the gentle nudge the next morning that woke me up so I could do it again. He was my endurance that allowed my heart to stretch enough to have room for one more kid…one more family. And He was there when it stretched too much, and I fell apart.