I had a particularly long weekend in the ED. I worked in what we have called the 'intake area'. This is basically advanced triage. An APP (NP or PA) works closely with the triage nurse to take a very brief history and physical exam of the patient, initiate orders including labs, imaging, and initial medications. The patient's work up is started quickly and it has helped the flow and efficiency or our department significantly.
The challenge of this weekend was the onslaught of difficult patients coupled with a lack of inpatient hospital beds requiring us to "hold" 15 patients in our department decreasing our bed capacity by about 30%. I plunged in trying to move the 15 patients stacked in waiting room. My first three patients included a homeless man with right leg weakness and unable to walk, a 90 year old woman actively vomiting blood, and a young woman in police custody going through heroin withdrawal. It didn't get any better from there and it didn't get better for the next three days.
This constant onslaught of addiction, mental health crisis, the elderly, and the myriad of medical emergencies and annoyances we see is crushing. It takes a toll on the spirit. It becomes difficult to maintain any sense of positivity or balance in life.
Recently I was with my husband walking through the streets of downtown Louisville. I was sharing with him my struggle to have joy amidst so much pain. We stumbled onto Thomas Merton Ave. It just so happens that Thomas Merton is a hero in the faith for me. His book, Seven Storey Mountain gave me tremendous hope and vision. He died a long time ago (something I am still bitter about) and I miss him dearly. We stumbled onto this street on our way to dinner. I never knew someone named a street after him!
We read a sign explaining that on this corner, on 4th and Walnut, Merton had an epiphany about waking up to a love and connection for other people that was so great it overwhelmed him and gave him immense joy and hope. I was reading about this experience on a placard and gazing at an image of Thomas Merton when I became acutely aware of the smell of human urine and glanced down just in time to see a pile of vomit under a park bench.
The struggle is real. I have no illusion that there is some way to enter into the suffering of the world and remain clean. Thomas Merton understood this. I need his vision. I need this way of Jesus. The only way I know to survive the crush of human suffering is to find this way of seeing people "shining like the sun".
This reminds of me of the Hindu word, 'namaste'. A word that literally means, 'I bow you'. It includes a sense of recognizing the divine in another human being. In a sense, it means, 'the divine in me bows to the divine in you'. This is essentially what Merton experience in Louisville. We are all connected and if we could just see ourselves and each other as God does, much of our inner and outer conflict would be resolved.
I could never hope to write like my mentor so I will quote him here. Thank you, Thomas Merton, for your life and your hopeful vision.
“In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all these people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world. . . .
This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud. . . . I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now that I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.
Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God’s eyes. If only they could all see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed. . . . But this cannot be seen, only believed and ‘understood’ by a peculiar gift.”
- Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander