Handed to me wrapped in sanitary plastic it came, the white coat. Uniform of the medical field that brings often anxiety but more so in my setting, authority, wisdom, and care; I awkwardly slipped it on. Immediately I scanned the area to see who might know me and be confused by my assumed role. Had I now become an employee of a neighboring facility? Medical, how could a Chaplain now be medical? The real question was for myself. How would I be viewed now in the white coat?
The MD who agreed to allow me to shadow her on medical rounds smiled. “How does the coat make you feel? Does it change anything for you?” she asked. I replied, “This is about how the patient will view and respond to me.” I replied. Yet, I valued her question to ponder.
I intuitively placed a pen and notepaper and my cell into the generous pockets. I liked that my hands were freed and I didn’t have to carry anything in my hand as usual. The MD resident began to report on the first patient we were about to see.
We walked into the room and the MD introduced the 3 of us, noting my name and role as the Chaplain. She quickly discovered the man was more ill than the MD’s had expected. He was in what she assessed was unacceptable pain. She washed her hands and palpated his belly listening to his sharing of suffering. He needed to be examined exposing a part of his body that would be considered private under other circumstances. The MD’s moved to examine as I moved to not view that what wasn’t necessary. I later remarked to the MD’s although I am comfortable with all medical issues and views I was intuitively protecting the patients need-to-know privacy. I was moved by the care of the hands of examination, by the concern of the levels of pain, the incredible caring, concern and TIME needed to be sure the marshaled medical teams would come to care for this man. Phone calls, charting, more calls, follow-up later in the day. I was surprised by the amount of time this one patient utilized, appropriately so, of these MD’s time. There would be 7 patients seen before 12:30 this day.
My sense was the MD’s are troubled by a disease progressing that cannot be managed as well as they hope. I knew that but now I saw it first hand. I saw the concern during the exam, heard the discussions afterwards.
I had the sense of relentless disease and the angst to relieve the disease’s hold or at the least the suffering. The responsibility of the doctor to affect the process is a hands-on, intense and vulnerable.
We moved on. We moved on to 6 additional patients during the long morning before a late lunch. I was moved as I removed the white coat. I wondered if I held more value with the medical team wearing their uniform. I wondered if I was held at arms length because of the same uniform by the patients and families.
I reflected that the origin of Chaplain is said to be of the derivation of the term relate to the relic cloak (capa or capella) of St. Martin of Tours or from the Latin term Capellanus.
Keeper of the sacred? Wearing a cloak? Indeed, I will return to my non-white-coat visitation of patients. I am so grateful for this experience however as much as I appreciated watching the care of the physicians I also reaffirmed the patients need my care as well; Chaplain.