Death, addiction, grace: a year as chaplain in New York’s toughest hospital

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The patient, who I’ll telephone RL, was stateless and came into Bellevue’s psychiatric ward experiencing hallucinations. His conflict with terrible intelligence unwellness was akin to galore of the different stateless radical I saw connected my regular commute done New York.

It was July 2020, and I had conscionable started my twelvemonth arsenic a chaplain-in-training connected the ward. Already, I was struggling to assistance him. He couldn’t clasp a conversation, slept astir of the day, and whenever awake, would look blankly astatine the tv successful the enactment country and speech to himself. Yet occasionally, erstwhile I spoke to him, his eyes would airy up and I’d drawback him successful a infinitesimal of clarity. We’d speech for a infinitesimal astir barbecue oregon baseball, 2 subjects I knew helium liked, earlier the airy clicked disconnected and helium walked away.

RL was a emblematic diligent astatine Bellevue. Since 1736, the New York infirmary has cared for the city’s poorest residents – radical surviving connected the streets; those successful the grips of a intelligence wellness crisis, addiction and withdrawal; families who deficiency security and choices; immigrants without papers and resources for preventative care. An full level treats detainees from Rikers Island jail.

In a metropolis of exorbitant wealth, the infirmary has agelong stood arsenic an unfastened doorway to the outcast and marginalized – radical similar RL.

One time I arrived connected the level to find the fog had cleared from RL’s mind. We drank java and helium shared with maine stories astir his location town, his family, and wherever helium planned connected uncovering a job. Like with different patients, the unit and I clapped and congratulated him upon his betterment and discharge.

Two weeks later, arsenic I walked done Penn Station connected my mode home, determination helium was. His apparel were rumpled and soiled and helium was rummaging done a garbage tin for food. He didn’t admit maine astatine all.

The heartbreak upon seeing him was calved of sheer helplessness – a feeling I would person to contend with galore times during my twelvemonth successful training, and 1 that was compounded by the pandemic. Between Covid and the specified terminability of life, my chap colleagues and I were called to be galore deaths implicit the year, immoderate of which volition enactment with maine forever.

There was the operation idiosyncratic who locked eyes conscionable arsenic the anesthesia enactment him nether and helium was intubated, ne'er to awake. The 40-year-old begetter who sustained a fatal encephalon injury, whose household begged for a occurrence past pondered: “Should we extremity beingness support? What would God privation america to do?”

On Christmas nighttime I attended 4 deaths. One of them was a small lad who suffered an aneurysm aft opening his presents. I had pleaded to God for mercy arsenic doctors performed thorax compressions. Later, aft helium died, I stood with his parents arsenic we prayed implicit the body, resting my manus mildly connected his forehead, arsenic I would my ain girl the aforesaid age.

But possibly ironically, our astir humbling and hard enactment had small to bash with death. It progressive helping our patients – those convicted of crime; diagnosed with a psychosis; grappling from diabetes; rendered without location and those declared “alien” by instrumentality –– consciousness afloat live and accepted successful the world, demonstrating that each of them is worthy and their dignity inherent, a conception arsenic extremist arsenic it is hopeful. For this reason, the signifier of spiritual attraction is 1 of the top acts of societal justness I’ve ever been portion of.


Our radical of six chaplain residents was wildly diverse, representing the afloat spectrum of our city. We were Black, white, Latino, gay, consecutive and trans. Three of america were immigrants from Colombia, Nigeria and Tobago.

Religiously, we each identified arsenic Christian. But successful a metropolis infirmary wherever we encountered Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, atheists and a wide swath of “nones”, espousing our idiosyncratic spiritual views was wholly discouraged. Proselytizing was perfectly forbidden.

We were trained, similar astir chaplains today, successful objective pastoral education, oregon CPE, a program that draws from science to thatch empathy and assistance radical find meaning successful the look of illness, decease oregon crisis. Whether that’s achieved done God oregon by different means (art, music, listening to the birds sing), is up to the patient.

Our bureau was stocked with Jewish supplication books, Qur’ans and Bibles, Buddhist texts and Pema Chödrön books that idiosyncratic had donated, each of which we’d present erstwhile asked.

When a Muslim newborn died successful the pediatric ICU 1 morning, I’d recited the decease prayer, oregon Istirja, astatine the petition of the parents. All of america had been asked astatine immoderate constituent to recite ritual prayers for our Jewish, Buddhist and Hindu patients. One of my colleagues would whip retired his telephone and play Hindu mantras oregon Entre Tus Manos connected YouTube, different times it would beryllium bluegrass and R&B – immoderate helped patients consciousness a transportation to their spiritual traditions, memories and springiness them a consciousness of comfort.

Two days a week, we met for process groups with our supervisor, Rabbi Mollie Cantor, who had served arsenic a pediatric chaplain for overmuch of her career. We would work aloud scripts from our caller visits and connection feedback.

One extremity was to assistance america place transference and countertransference – projecting our ain profoundly held emotions connected to our patients – and thus, analyse our ain baggage. The bittersweet and lonely pistillate connected the 15th level who cried for fractional an hr is not my parent oregon my beloved Aunt Lucy, conscionable similar the small lad who died connected Christmas was not my ain child, contempt the aggravated affectional connections. The extremity is to admit immoderate feelings and assumptions arose and determination connected with our care, but this process takes signifier and a willingness to stay vulnerable.

Most of america recovered it hard to taxable to this achy enactment of affectional processing. Long-held spiritual beliefs got called into question. Old ghosts, past traumas and slithery, implicit biases got exposed. As the lone consecutive achromatic antheral successful the program, the scrutiny I encountered was humbling.

Other days, a remark astir sins oregon demons from 1 of my peers, a blimpish evangelical pastor, would trigger thing heavy wrong and origin maine to interruption retired successful sweats. Standoffs and unfastened arguments with our supervisor were common. Yet we each worked with the knowing that it came from a spot of love, this blunt-edge process of mining the darkest and ugliest parts of ourselves truthful connected the different 3 days of the week, we could beryllium without fearfulness oregon judgement with the darkest and ugliest parts of others. 

Early on, it was called to my attraction that I had a savior complex. At archetypal I’d bristled astatine the charge, but aft immoderate exploring I realized it needed addressing successful bid to spot my patients clearly.

Growing up, I’d spent years listening to radical stock heartbreaking testimonies astir their descent toward stone bottom. They often framed their stories astir a hard binary of “saved” oregon “unsaved”, successful oregon out. This imaginativeness of theology emphasized idiosyncratic salvation and was exclusive successful who it allowed “in”. And it seemed to disregard the bulk of the Gospels, peculiarly Jesus’s radically inclusive and communal ministry of compassion toward the mediocre and the different unlovable.

Conflicted, I drifted extracurricular my religion and assemblage for years arsenic a benignant of spiritual refugee. Yet, I clung to this conception of salvation, that erstwhile expanded beyond the constrictive realm of the by and by, could talk to the loneliness and alienation that truthful galore radical felt, including myself.


For overmuch of the twelvemonth astatine Bellevue, I worked successful the exigency room, wherever I encountered an endless procession of men and women battling addiction. I was drawn to these folks, astir apt for the reasons stated above, but besides owed to my ain experiences with drugs and alcohol, which led to immoderate countertransference successful these visits.

In my archetypal months, I’d pounce connected immoderate denotation that idiosyncratic wanted to alteration and soon tasted the powerfulness of the reformer, the zeal of the crusader. One patient, a middle-aged African American man, had a agelong past of substance use, homelessness and incarceration. I’d ended the sojourn with an entreaty for him to “forgive” himself, to “like” himself and recognize his afloat potential.

Afterward, I presented the publication of this sojourn to the group. When I finished reading, 1 of my different supervisors smiled and asked: “Tell me, however agelong was that visit?”

“I don’t know, 20 minutes maybe.”

“Wow”, helium said. “Here’s this feline with a beingness of trauma and addiction, not to notation abandonment issues with his mom. He past tells you astir surviving connected the streets and spending years successful prison, and present you spell and crook his beingness astir successful a single, 20-minute conversation. Congratulations,” helium said, a wry grin connected his face. “You’re similar the top chaplain successful the world.”

The lesson, I dilatory learned, was that we cannot alteration people, nor is it wrong our relation arsenic chaplains to try. Our relation wasn’t to transform, but to conscionable the addiction and despair with a beingness that is neither anxious nor judgmental, a beingness that tin travel a idiosyncratic to the places wherever nary 1 other wants to go, whether they’re sober, precocious oregon successful the jaws of withdrawal. To conscionable their humanity with our own, their vulnerability with ours.

Mollie liked to telephone it “getting successful their boat”, which meant taking a travel into a liminal abstraction that could beryllium lonely and frightening. As I would yet learn, it was a overmuch harder benignant of intervention, but much life-giving than a committedness of salvation and a slap connected the back.

Getting into these “boats” proved tricky connected my psychiatric floor, wherever patients were being treated for schizophrenia, psychosis, slump and different intelligence illnesses. Particularly challenging were patients with spiritual preoccupations who believed, for instance, they were God oregon that demons and angels spoke to them. Some had besides experienced important spiritual trauma.

An occasional spirituality radical I led would sometimes devolve into specified delusions, and the attending psychiatrist, Dr Carine Nzodom, had cautioned america against colluding with them. I soon became unsure of my role; for a idiosyncratic pacing the hallway answering the voices successful their head, immoderate speech of God oregon religion seemed debased connected their hierarchy of needs.

One of my patients, who I’ll telephone JB, presented with terrible intelligence unwellness and trauma. She was successful her aboriginal 20s. Each day, she would attack maine and the unit frantic and paranoid, needing changeless reassurance. Her delusions were truthful repetitive and relentless that it was hard to converse with her, and my instinct was simply to guarantee her repeatedly that she was safe. With her, I was often astatine a nonaccomplishment astatine however to “help”.

“You person to retrieve that underneath, and adjacent with, the hallucinations and disorganization of thought is simply a idiosyncratic with hopes and dreams who’s deserving of occurrence conscionable similar immoderate 1 of us,” Nzodom told me.

I was fortunate to witnesser specified breakthroughs. A mates of months later, I arrived astatine the infirmary and recovered JB chatting freely with a chap patient. It had been astir a week since I’d been connected the floor, and I hardly recognized her. Her hairsbreadth was done up and she wore caller apparel successful lieu of the aforesaid grey infirmary sweats.

“Chaplain!” she shouted, a large grin crossed her face. Gone was the paranoia, repetitive code and the delusions. For fractional an hr we talked astir music, her household and the friends she missed. Not agelong aft she was discharged, and the past I heard, she was thriving.

But for each diligent similar JB, determination were others similar RL, who returned to the streets and Bellevue. I experienced this clip and clip again – patients, mostly unhoused men and women, struggling with addiction, cycled done the ER, sometimes successful worse signifier than before.

I often thought backmost to Nzodom’s words astir the quality being wrong who harbored hopes and potential, the idiosyncratic who contempt however sick oregon closed disconnected they appeared, would inactive rotation into my groups due to the fact that immoderate portion of them longed to beryllium successful a community. A societal idiosyncratic from different psych level besides told america astir patients who returned again and again. “Sometimes it takes 10 oregon 15 times earlier a idiosyncratic tin genuinely get better,” she said. “And with immoderate patients that ne'er happens astatine all. What’s important is to invited them each clip similar it’s their first.”

Encouraging alteration with a pep speech lone planted the bitter seeds of shame, erstwhile that idiosyncratic returned done the doors of the ER and saw maine lasting there. And our patients – those who consciousness “less than” successful our modern nine – had plentifulness of self-hatred without america adding more.

It was hard not to get discouraged. Almost daily, we encountered idiosyncratic who had been hospitalized for trying to termination themselves oregon expressing the tendency to bash so.

The hardest of each was having to face this hopelessness successful children and adolescents – similar the suicidal young antheral who told me, “The lone happening I’m bully for is getting precocious and overdosing” oregon the teen who had killed idiosyncratic successful a combat and was present convinced, successful his shame, that God was deserting him.

One of the galore grim hallmarks of the pandemic was the immense summation successful suicidal youth, whom I encountered play successful the ER’s psychiatric intake. Many identified arsenic LGBTQ+ and lived with spiritual families who were disapproving, oregon adjacent hostile. Others were from homes wherever addiction and intelligence unwellness were present.

The pandemic deprived them of regular in-person encounters with teachers and friends. It had chopped disconnected resources, specified arsenic entree to captious therapies. Otherpatients, prima students astatine the city’s astir competitory precocious schools, felt isolated and adrift erstwhile their satellite went remote.

A batch of my aboriginal supervisions with Rabbi Mollie Cantor addressed my interventions with these kids, galore of them not overmuch older than my ain children and my tendency to scope retired and clasp them.

I wasn’t the psychiatrist who could prescribe medicine oregon supply healing therapy and counseling, but I could enactment unneurotic with the doctors, therapists and societal workers arsenic a team, to beryllium the grownup who met them without conditions, homework oregon attraction goals.

Mostly I conscionable listened, trying not to flinch arsenic they told maine astir being raped and abused, astir the adults successful their lives who had beaten and abandoned them. My bosom would interruption each clip they recounted wanting to extremity their lives, reasoning that was the lone option.

“I’m gladsome you’re alive,” I’d archer them. “And my supplication is that you find the assistance you request here.”


My radical of residents often discussed however overmuch of the Bible is simply a post-traumatic substance – a effect to the horrors of war, exile and crucifixion. How the psalms are despairing laments astir feeling abandoned by God, and however Jesus himself cried retired from the cross: “My God, my God, wherefore person you forsaken me?” And how, contempt each this, the scriptures guarantee america that God ne'er leaves us, that nary substance however acold beyond the perimeter we find ourselves, God’s grace and acceptance provides a mode backmost in.

Venturing into this abstraction with my patients made maine recognize the relevance of my ain journey. In 2016, portion surviving successful Austin, Texas, I’d taken my lad to his violin performance astatine a section Methodist church, wherever a elephantine rainbow emblem hung implicit the altar. The evangelicals of my puerility and contiguous were precise wide astir who the outcasts successful our religion and nine were, and yet here, those margins were nonexistent.

I attended a work the pursuing Sunday and was amazed to spot transgender folks and same-sex parents with kids successful the congregation. The soft subordinate past got up and shared a moving grounds astir having been ostracized from enactment astatine his erstwhile religion for being gay, and however grateful helium was to beryllium welcomed and affirmed successful this place.

If ever I experienced a “born again” infinitesimal it was there, weeping astatine the axenic and unconditional emotion that surrounded and accepted us, a emotion that sought retired the refugees and invited america backmost into the fold.


I met Fernando aft helium arrived from Rikers Island, wherever helium had attempted suicide.

As we waited for the surgeon to arrive, helium told maine helium had been successful occupation astir of his beingness but had managed to enactment retired agelong capable to get joined and person kids. His tribunal day for this peculiar charge, a usurpation of his parole, was successful a week and his chances were grim. “I’m looking astatine a agelong stretch, a batch of time,” helium said.

Here was a antheral drowning successful self-hatred. Fernando described watching different detainee bent himself successful his cell. My ain absorption was horror, but I watched his look crook astir wistful.

“I was jealous,” helium said. “Why couldn’t I bash that?”

“You privation to dice similar that,” I said, clarifying.

“Yeah, alternatively of wasting my clip doing this shit.”

My archetypal instinct was to propulsion retired my cape and punctual him of his worthy and worth nether heaven. There was a clip erstwhile I said specified things, but present I tried to embody them instead.

For an hr I sat with Fernando and listened, the 2 of america unneurotic successful that unspeakable boat. And arsenic I got up to leave, I said to him: “I bask talking with you. You’re a existent blessing to maine today.” I watched him bash a double-take, past tears came to his eyes.

“For real?” helium said. “No one’s ever described maine similar that.”

Father Gregory Boyle, who for decades worked with pack members successful Los Angeles, talks astir practicing “radical kinship” with those connected the margins, conscionable arsenic Jesus did, truthful that the margins themselves yet disappear. Entering into kinship, pulling Fernando retired of self-hatred and into community, signals acceptance and grace and leads to a spot wherever “the psyche feels its worth”, Boyle writes.

For america residents, we besides learned that if we tin signifier empathy that’s this close, this focused, determination is small country for bias oregon stereotypes to wiggle successful and derail us. We commencement to spot radical not arsenic two-dimensional but arsenic afloat quality beings whose lives person meaning and who, similar us, are coursing with the aforesaid acheronian and light. This is how, by the extremity of our residency, my blimpish evangelical workfellow was presenting beauteous verbatims with her transgender patients, and the Nigerian Catholic clergyman had entered kinship with his chap countryman, a Muslim diligent from the north.

We learned that erstwhile we were capable to get retired of our ain way, our relation was precise basic.

Helping our patients required small much than gathering them wherever they were. On my psych floor, it was watching Jerry Springer successful the enactment country oregon sharing a favourite recipe. It was listening to them sermon relationships and children, the fearfulness and excitement astir discharge, and what awaited them arsenic radical who had stabilized and healed. I learned my relation wasn’t to thatch oregon uncover to them anything, but to simply affirm the champion parts of themselves that had go obscured by illness, but had been determination each along, and to revel unneurotic successful that spot wherever the psyche feels it’s worth. “This is our chaplain,” Nzodom said 1 time arsenic she introduced a caller patient. “He makes america consciousness bully astir ourselves.”

It’s however 1 greeting successful precocious outpouring I joined my psych patients connected Bellevue’s rooftop for java and recreation hour. The agelong Covid wintertime had yet thawed, giving mode to 1 of the archetypal lukewarm days of the year. A boombox played 80s hits portion a fewer of america sat chatting astatine a picnic table, yet soon we recovered ourselves silenced by the moment: the crisp bluish entity overhead and the grandeur of Manhattan laid retired earlier us, the sunlight reflecting disconnected the aureate rooftop of the New York Life Building.

Ten minutes passed successful silence. There was nary deeper meaning to explore, nary anxiousness to bash thing for the involvement of doing it. Just a radical of america sitting unneurotic successful the sun, enjoying our java and nodding our heads to Hall & Oates, a shared infinitesimal arsenic beatified arsenic immoderate supplication I’d uttered.