I got a chance to play my martyr card last night at the Christmas Eve service. Our pastor, Sarah Shelton, preached a brilliant sermon (again), so I waited in line to praise her. When I told her what a great job she’d done, she expressed her thanks. Then she asked, “What are you going to do for Christmas? You’re not going home?” That’s when I played my martyr card. I assumed a facial expression which I imagined approximated the Zen-like detachment of Mr. Spock and with as much nonchalance as I could muster said, “I’m going to work on-call at the hospital.” She exclaimed, “Oh! Bless you!” and she made the sign of the cross on my forehead.
I have to confess it. I felt a bit sorry for myself for working on Christmas when “everyone else” would be enjoying time with their families, smells of great food wafting through the house, along with a hint of wood smoke from the fire. They’d be enjoying laughter and hugs and I’d be hurrying about a hospital. And the pastor’s little demonstration quite nearly played into my desire to feel a bit like a martyr. I say “nearly” because my time at the hospital on Christmas Day rescued me from that sad fate.
First, “everyone else” was NOT enjoying time with family around a fire somewhere. A few thousand health care professionals besides me showed up at the hospital on Christmas Day, including four other staff chaplains and one volunteer. And all those people had to eat while at the hospital. We all benefitted from food service people who doled out breakfast and lunch and delivered to patient rooms. As I was on my way to one visit, I walked around a maintenance crew standing on step ladders, their upper torsos sunk deep inside the ceiling. All I could see was their trousers and shoes. I heard a muffled voice shout, “Can you see it?” I don’t know what they were looking for, but I bet they’d rather have been looking for presents under a Christmas tree than whatever-it-was up there above the ceiling tiles.
Then, as I talked to an automobile accident victim, his neurosurgeon walked in. The physician asked the patient if he had any questions concerning the surgery he was going to undergo the next day. There ensued an interesting conversation about how the surgeon intended to repair the patient’s badly injured spine.
That brings me to the second set of experiences that rescued me from my latest martyr syndrome. Beginning with the accident victim and continuing with every room I entered, many of them said, “Merry Christmas,” even before I did. A voice spoke in my heart at every stop: “You think YOU’VE got it tough? Try a severed spine. Try a rejected set of transplanted lungs. Try a rare form of cancer. Try any of that and keep an upbeat, NON-martyr attitude like those patients.” I left progressively inspired after every room with a thorough conviction that they’d blessed ME, not the other way around.
And there were the nurses with the elf hats, the techs wearing Santa vests, and a physician wearing a Currier and Ives Print Christmas tie. Many of those people work in health care out of a deep and noble sense of call. Maybe one or two of them had tried to gain a little martyr’s sympathy, too. If so, I hope they were convicted like I was. Christmas in the hospital showed me that there are people all over the world who don’t let sentimentality get in the way of doing the right, noble, and caring thing. And it showed me people who don’t let suffering, REAL suffering, get in the way of decency and joy.
Next Christmas, I just might give myself a blessing and work the morning on call again.