I have a story I’ve never written. Not because I lost it or forgot about it, but because it’s so graphic I thought it needed a preliminary warning.
In 1990, I left my work as a congregational pastor to begin a one-year internship transitioning into a career as a hospital chaplain.
During my internship at UC Davis Medical Center in Sacramento, I worked four rotations in various parts of the hospital. The one I will never forget was the 13 weeks I spent working in the burn unit.
The burn unit was a highly specialized assignment. While I dropped in a few times a day, nurses limited their care to only one patient during a 12-hour shift.
I will never forget the patient I met there named Mr. Brown.
His nurse explained to me how Brown’s condition was the tragic result of love scorned. His girlfriend had doused him with gasoline and set him afire as he lay in a drunken sleep.
Due to his name, I was struck by the irony of Mr. Brown’s tragedy. He was African-American, but the fire altered his skin pigment, changing his face to an almost albino white.
Honestly, I wanted to be anywhere else but in that burn unit. The patients were hard to look at through my inexperienced eyes. Mr. Brown was one who spoke so softly that I had to bring myself close enough to absorb his pain with all my senses—smell, sight and, yes, even touch through gloved hands for his protection.
I spoke with him daily, but I had other patients to see, so I can’t tell you where I was in the hospital when I overheard the page: “Chaplain Burkes, to the burn unit, stat.”
A few minutes later, I stood at the washing station, prepping for my entrance. After donning gloves, mask and a gown, I punched an electric switch with my elbow and hurried through the unit’s opening doors.
At the nurses’ station, I met Brown’s nurse who told me he’d passed away.
“Where’s the family?” I asked.
“They left an hour ago,” she said.
After all my entry prep, I shot her a disappointing look.
“They didn’t stay long,” she said.
Youthful impatience percolated under my mask. I wanted to scold her for not calling me in time to meet the family.
Instead, I began making feeble excuses to leave. Then, just as I turned to do so, I saw her tears slipping past her mask.
I motioned her toward the nurses’ lounge, where we found a place to sit as she unfolded her story. She removed her gloves and dropped her mask. The nursing bravado was gone.
“I spoke with him for hours every day,” she sobbed. “Now he’s gone.”
Our conversation was the first time I really thought about the fact that people who help people will get hurt. There’s no way they can walk among the wounded without leaving crumbling pieces of their hearts on the floor.
It’s as if they sacrifice parts of their own existence to sustain a few more years of existence for others. That’s what nurses do.
Today, in that same burn unit in Northern California, dedicated nurses are working around the clock to help the victims of the infamous Camp Fire. I ask you to pray for these nurses and others, to respect what they do and give to those who bravely stand in the gap between disaster and us.
If you wish to contribute to a special fire-relief fund that will help several organizations, go to globalgiving.org under California Wildfire Relief Fund.
Norris Burkes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.