1. Jordan, Elaine G. MDiv, MA


A young clergyperson finds herself sorely tested by a patient's unrelieved pain.


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I set my coat across a chair. Jeanine (not her real name) was naked except for her stomach, which was covered by a flannel cloth. A nurse hovered for a minute and said, "It's the cancer. We can't cover her." She adjusted the cloth and then left us alone. Where were the rescuers, I wondered, the comforters?

Figure. Illustration... - Click to enlarge in new windowFigure. Illustration by Pat Kinsella.

Young and inexperienced, I served as minister of a small church in a ranching community where retirees played golf, tourists visited the charming old town center, and conservatives ruled the school board. I loved using my ministry to encourage people to confront the ethical implications of their daily decisions. Such noble intentions made me feel I was on the side of the angels.


Jeanine was in her 60s. She wasn't a church member and I barely knew her. A neighbor had called me to the hospital-Jeanine's husband was dead, and there were no family or friends at her side. Trying to get my bearings, I leaned over her and recited the words of the Twenty-third Psalm: "The Lord is my shepherd .... Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil ...."


"Help me," Jeanine moaned. Her eyes opened and then closed. I knew she was pleading for release from her pain.


"Jeanine, I'm so sorry," I whispered. I hurried to the nurses' station. When a young nurse looked up, I asked if she could do more to relieve Jeanine's pain.


"Nothing more to do," she said, looking back down at an open ledger.


"But she's suffering so!" I hoped I'd spoken loudly enough to be overheard by someone who might help. "How can you stand to watch it?" The girl was silent. She turned a page and I noticed her bitten fingernails.


"Yes, she's suffering," said an older nurse at the back of the station. "But her physician is the only one who can change her orders, and he's opposed to giving her more morphine."


So that was the issue here: whether or not Jeanine's physician was willing to give her a stronger dose of morphine to end her pain-and maybe, I guessed, her life.


If I were Jeanine, I thought, I'd want to spend my last hours peacefully, aided by morphine, rather than lie there in agony-even if it might mean a hastened death. I had to assume Jeanine wanted that peace, too.


I decided I'd find Dr. Helms (not his real name), who happened to be my own doctor, and alert him to the intensity of her suffering. Before I could ask to use the telephone, Dr. Helms approached from down the hall. A slight, baby-faced fellow, I knew he'd listen to me, a minister with a loud, persuasive voice. Wishing I'd worn my clerical collar, I fell into step with him and asked if Jeanine could be given more painkillers.


"It's urgent, doctor," I said. "She's crying out."


"That much would kill her, Reverend." He hurried ahead of me to the nurses' station and leaned over the counter, hoping I'd take the hint and go away. "My Christian principles forbid me taking the measures you suggest."


"But it's awful!" I blurted out as I came up beside him. I knew the nurses and staff- including the man vacuuming nearby-were listening, and I felt a flash of moral superiority over the doctor. What kind of Christianity would deny Jeanine relief from her pain?


Dr. Helms turned and walked away from me, passing the door to Jeanine's room without bothering to check in on her. Feeling vindicated, I inwardly compared him to the passerby who refuses to stop and help in the biblical parable of the good Samaritan.


I went back and stood in Jeanine's doorway, but I didn't want to be there. I didn't want to look on that pain, listen to the moaning, or smell the room. I remembered Jesus's words, "I was sick and you visited me," but I hurried inside, snatched my jacket without taking a breath, and left.


I hurried down the stairs in my clumsy boots, thinking of my ordination vow to be a presence at the bedside of suffering. Despite my guilt, I didn't have the will to keep my promise and climb back up to the third floor-to the moral high ground I'd imagined I occupied. I stepped into the winter cold, hoping to shake off the image of myself standing in the doorway of Jeanine's room. The clergyperson up there didn't fit my image of a pastor who'd serve and comfort people in pain. She looked more like an untried minister who'd entered a stark white room and met a complex, shadowed world.