Sunday, August 7, 2011

Thoughts While On-Call

I was in the chapel office when I heard this incessant beeping coming from the top desk drawer….the source of which I discovered was the back-up pager that our per diem chaplains wear when we CPE students are otherwise occupied in class or group time.

The pager is designed to continuously beep if a rapid response call has come though from the front desk and no buttons have been pushed to indicate that it has been received and read. I flipped through the contents of the tiny LED screen and noted the endless stream of multi-digit numbers listing the code status and the room locations of the calls received:
Stroke Alert 4ED
etc. etc. etc.

The pager had 25 calls stored in its memory, all of which also came through on the primary pager while this one sat idle in the desk drawer for the better part of a week.
Fifteen were rapid response (999) or emergency (333) calls, many of which likely resulted in a death or life changing experience for the patients and families involved.
Nearly every rapid response call I’ve been summoned to results in the same scene: 20+ people crowded into a tiny hospital room and flowing out into the hallway, as one doctor straddles the patient’s bed doing chest compressions. Nurses and techs fly in and out carrying syringes and pushing electronic equipment while I, the chaplain, hover around the edges looking for tell tale signs of family members in the melee.  Rarely does this scene end well.

As I flipped through the list on the pager and deleted each call I couldn’t help but think of the stories behind each number. Some room numbers were familiar and I remembered the patients whom I saw in these rooms early last week. Often we don’t know what happens to a patient when their name disappears from the census list we print out each day. Some are discharged, some are moved to other units…and some end up as a string of numbers in the on-call pager.
Names and faces passed through my memory as I deleted each number, and a sadness fell over me as I contemplated the fragility and the futility of this act.
In a single second a life is deleted…a memory of a death erased to make room for those that are yet to come.

I know the memories of these individuals live on their family members and all those whose lives were touched by their existence…..and the brief memories that I have of these patients will live on in me. But in the chaplain’s on-call pager they exist for only a shift’s length of time. For a harrowing few minutes they are the source of activity, anxiety, and stress….and a few hours later they are deleted from existence, never to be seen again.
It’s a good thing people are not like pagers.

I cleared the pager of all it’s calls and placed it back in the desk drawer.
The one on my hip that has been going off all day remains silent for now.
I pluck it from its holster and scroll through the menu:
Erase all messages?
Yes. Please.
Messages erased. 

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