Emergency rooms remind us just how close we are to the people of the Bible, linked by inevitable mortality and ever-fragile common humanity.
By Bill Leonard
Just when I think we have nothing in common with the people of the New Testament, I show up in an emergency room. I've been there several times recently, not for my own needs (yet), but with friends.
Since I'm not a 24/7 full-time parish minister, emergency rooms aren't normative for me and such moments often feel as if I'd never been there before. In reality, I’ve been in and out of ERs consistently over the years, in ways that continue to impact my theological education. Church sent me to emergency rooms more often than not, first as a youth minister in Mesquite, Texas, during my seminary-student years. If memory serves, my initial ER experience came the night that one of the youth, JB by name, fell off the hayride wagon and bloodied his head. He got stitches and I got a taste of an ER on a Saturday night — Texas traumas etched in my memory. The accident prone JB got ER stitches that stretched across the Lone Star State, often carting me with him after accidents at youth camps and retreats.
“Study-abroad” courses took me inside assorted international ERs, like the night colleague James Dunn and I hailed a cab in Oxford, England, to take a terribly ill divinity student to the famous John Radcliffe Hospital. The cautious cabby compelled the poor student to keep her head out the window lest she throw up on the floorboard of his newly purchased vehicle. British medical care came to the rescue, however; the student was well tended and kept overnight, while Dunn and I headed back to the dorm at Regents Park College. We exited the Radcliffe ER with the Oxford night creeping toward dawn and Dunn extoling the benefits of British health care for the “stranger in their midst.”
A more recent ER visit involved my 90-something mother and assorted fresh-faced intern/residents who tried interminably and unsuccessfully to reconnect her dislocated rotator cuff, finally terminating their experiment after hours of agony for an ancient woman who could only scream in pain. That night was a terrible illustration of why we call such places trauma centers, where distress can be imported or extended once inside.
A 2011 study suggests that some 20 percent of us reported one ER visit — with 7 percent returning a second time — an average of 415 per 1,000 Americans entering emergency rooms that year. The most common ER “traumas” include chest pain, stomachaches, toothaches, sprains/falls, upper respiratory ailments, cuts/bruises, back pain, skin infections, foreign objects (don’t ask) and serious headaches. Frankly, I thought gun and knife wounds would make the top-10 list, but maybe that’s only on Saturday nights — what British poet Charles Fisher calls “the street dirty blood on the hospital clean floor [as] casualties enter the emergency room door.”
There’s always a crowd in the ER. I don’t think I’ve seen one that wasn’t teeming with a cross section of America’s ethnic, economic, religious and linguistic landscape. The phrase "get me the translator now" rings in my ears from the most recent ER visit, surely an ever-present demand in multilingual America. Children and seniors are the most frequent patients — terrified kids cradled by frantic parents; seniors on walkers or in wheel chairs often after the inevitable fall; and cross-generational 911 patients strapped to gurneys by EMS medics who’ve attached assorted tubes and monitors in the ambulance.
Emergency rooms remind us just how close we are to the people of the Bible, linked by inevitable mortality and ever-fragile common humanity. The desperation of so many New Testament characters sounds strangely contemporary, especially when Jesus shows up. “Sir, a boy of mine lies at home paralysed and racked with pain” (Matt 8: 6). “If I can only touch his cloak, I shall be cured” (Matt 9:21). “And sufferers from every kind of illness, racked with pain, possessed by devils, epileptic, or paralysed, were all brought to him and he cured them” (Matt. 4:24). And don’t forget Martha’s desperate accusation: “If you had been here, sir, my brother would not have died” (John 11:21). Perhaps Jesus was his own first century trauma center.
When they can or can’t help, emergency rooms reflect the collective trauma of our existence — physically, mentally, even spiritually. We need them and their caregivers desperately, since emergencies are never far away from any of us. Annie Dillard says it better in Holy the Firm: “We need reminding of what time can do, must only do; churn out enormity at random and beat it, with God’s blessing, into our heads: that we are created, created, sojourners in a land we did not make, a land with no meaning of itself and no meaning we can make for it alone. Who are we to demand explanations of God? (And what monsters of perfection should we be if we did not?)”
Grace amid the trauma. Gospel triage.
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