Before the sun comes up, it is quiet. Deer wander the line of pines searching for a frosty apple or two from the small grove. A cat sits by the computer screen purring in request of a soft lap for a nap. Sirius to the East, Arcturus to the South, and a brilliant beaver moon gently blanketing the garden where tomatoes reddened, just a couple months ago. The spirit of the land has rested and speaks in soft tones only heard in the pre-dawn hours.
Yesterday I received a request. Not an odd request, but a very simple, quite normal request. They usually start with the same words, “I have a patient for you to see….” The phrase is then followed by, “I know you are busy…” or “if you have time…” A story follows: part tragedy, part complexity, sometimes with a dash of hope because after all, these folks are usually quite sick by the time they land on the doorstep of our specialty service. But this request was not complex. A daughter, hundreds of miles away, her mom swept off to another state, to a hospital equipped to care for her when the local hospital ran out of answers and beds. Mom and daughter, both alone with miles separating them in the midst of a pandemic and a virus standing in the way of being together. This is a common story and a heartbreaking occurrence in these days.
The request? A prayer. That was it. A prayer, tearfully requested by the daughter. Of course. Of course I will go pray with your mom… Theory has it that one of the last senses we maintain is hearing. I share this with patient families all the time. “Assume they can hear you. Say whatever you need to say. Say it all.” Grabbing the mask I hate, shoving my claustrophobia into the depths once again, I took a deep breath and headed to the ICU.
Entering the room, two beautiful nursing souls tended to mom. Gently guiding tubes, moving cords, changing sheets, checking monitors, adjusting bags and body. Hanging on the IV pole, next to a clear liquid filled bag, was a beautifully simple rosary. Pale pastel beads, silver cross, Hail Mary full of grace…
I asked the nurse if we could place the rosary in her hand; she tenderly wrapped it around the weathered fingers, “I’m not Catholic, she said.” “Me neither…” I replied. Hail Mary, full of grace. The Lord is with thee…
Masks make it difficult to hear and so to pray, even with the hope she might be able to hear me, above the drones of the breathing machine and the bells and whistles of the intensive care unit…Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus…my prayer seemed so loud, it felt as if the words reverberated down the hall…wafting into rooms, transforming from word to sacrament; a divine balm to soothe worried and furrowed brows of both staff and patients…
One nurse had remained, joining the prayer while changing the urine bag. We shared an “amen,” and she carefully replaced the rosary on the IV pole, “so it doesn’t get lost in the sheets.” I thanked her and washed my hands in the hallway sink, allowing the warm soapy water to cascade over my palms a bit longer than normal. I looked over the unit: social workers on the phone, doctors in consultation, nurses in and out of rooms, it all looked the same as when I had walked in just moments before.
The visit wasn’t long, it wasn’t complex. Prayers through a thick mask, for someone on a ventilator, whom I hoped heard at some impossible level of awareness above all the noise of the ICU was like screaming a prayer to a deaf God… and yet…the spirit speaks in soft tones sometimes only heard in the pre-dawn hours.
Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.