During my seminary days, I was a chaplain at University Hospital in Louisville. The chaplains rotated shifts in the emergency room overnight to minister to those brought in. The hospital was a level three trauma center, so we got every accident, every gunshot, every drug overdose. When I had the ER shift, I don't ever remember getting more than a couple hours of broken sleep on a hard cot in the chapel.
In that ER, the chaplain was not only there to minister to those in crisis, but he or she was also an extra pair of hands when needed. My first night on duty, I was walking through the ER, and a resident grabbed me. He told me to hold a man down while they made an incision into his stomach cavity to see if he had internal bleeding. I held the man down by his shoulders while they gave him local anesthetic, then cut him open. Nobody told me the ER was going to be like this.
The shift I'll never forget happened a few nights later. A young woman was brought in by ambulance. They had radioed ahead to expect trouble. The nurse called for me. "She might need a chaplain," she said.
The ambulance pulled up to the bay and backed in. The security guard toggled the doors. As they swung open, I saw the inside of the ambulance looked like a cat fight had broken out. Boxes had been ripped open, IV units were on the floor, and the EMT looked like he had finished third in a knife fight.
They unloaded the gurney, and I got my first good look at the young woman. She looked to be 18 or 19, dishwater blonde hair and skinny, maybe about 110 pounds after an all-you-can-eat buffet. She was straining against the restraints, her eyes wild, and she was screaming cuss words that would make a cowboy blush.
"Give us a hand, Chap," called the security guard. This was my call to action, to be the extra pair of hands. "Grab her right leg; we're going to unloose the straps and put her on a hospital gurney." Something told me this wasn't such a good idea. I have been to many rodeos in my life, and my intuition told me we were about to have one right here in the ER.
A nurse held the woman's head, three security guards and me each grabbed a limb, and the EMT loosened the straps. At that time, I weighed a little over 200 pounds and was in pretty good shape. Two of the security guards looked like they topped out over 250, and the third was in my weight class. When the straps let go, this 110-pound young woman began to thrash and jerk. It was like trying to hold the leg of a running horse. Her leg jerked from my grasp, and for a sickening second, I thought she was about to shake loose and run. I leaned my full weight onto her leg, got a firm grip and a faraway look and held on for dear life.
Somehow, we got her onto the hospital gurney, and another nurse produced a straitjacket. I wasn't sure this was going to work. Imagine trying to capture 110 pounds of cussing fury and tying it up. Extra nurses poured out of the ER. This was not their first rodeo. First, one arm got tucked into a sleeve and then another. She bit one of the nurses and tried to bite a security guard. I was glad I was on the end with no teeth.
We got her belted down, and she was placed in the "quiet room." The quiet room was a bare room with nothing but concrete walls, a caged light and door with a window. Think of a prison cell with less class, and that was the quiet room.
The nurses could monitor her by video, but they told me to stroll by every so often and see if she wanted to talk. This was like asking if I wanted to talk to a charging bull.
After an hour, she had calmed down. She stopped cussing and asked me to tell the nurses she no longer needed to be restrained. I passed the message on. The medical team came, rolled her into the ER proper, and after treating her, told me she wanted to talk to me. I didn't know why, except that I had become very well acquainted with her right leg during our introduction.
When I pulled back the curtain, she smiled and apologized. It turned out she was a diabetic, and she had gone to her first "adult" party. Alcohol was in abundance and she partook, having no idea about the sugar level of beer. After six or seven beers, her body rebelled, and she lost control.
She told me while she was out of control, she knew what was happening, but she was powerless to stop it. Somehow, I knew to smile at her and say, "That's the definition of being out of control."
We talked about faith and Jesus. She said she grew up in church but stopped going when she was in high school. This experience, she said, made her think she needed to take God more seriously. I said I hoped she would. I prayed with her. She said she felt like getting some sleep. I understood the feeling.
It was about 4 a.m. when I finally made it to the cot in the chapel. I couldn't get the experience out of my head. When I checked the ER at 7 a.m., she had been discharged. That's the frustrating part of being a hospital chaplain - you are there for the moment, not for the journey. But I could pray for her, and I did.
I prayed a simple prayer: "Lord, help that young woman let you be in control of her life. Because Lord, it looked to me like when she was in control, she was out of control." Then the Spirit spoke to me: "Remember Clay, that goes for you, too."
The Rev. Dr. Clay Smith is the lead pastor of Alice Drive Baptist Church in Sumter.
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