We are all children of God in the chemo room
Today's story is about fear. Fear is an interesting thing. Our government has utilized fear as the cornerstone of its leadership style for the past eight years, and the financial crisis isn't helping us get out of this mode of existence. But it's funny that much of what we fear is over what might happen. Fear expands into emotion and drama in our minds. We have ideas that make us fearful even if we never test them against reality.
Yesterday my fears and my reality came together in an unusual circumstance.
Here are some of the things I am afraid of: sickness, cancer, aging, death, violence, criminals.
Here is how I spent my day yesterday: accompanying my Mom to her chemotherapy infusion in a small hospital room that she shared with two convicts from the state prison, and four armed guards.
UNC is a state-of-the-art hospital, and it's also a state hospital, so sick prisoners receive treatment there. It was one of the strangest assemblies of people I've ever been in. But it actually wasn't scary.
My Mom was there because her lymphoma came out of remission. The prisoners were getting chemotherapy too. I tried not to think about what their crimes might have been. One prisoner was a young white man, one was an older white woman. The chemo room is a great leveler. I might have been afraid of the man if I had run into him on the street, but even though he looked like a strong guy, no one is strong at the moment that they are getting those powerful drugs pumped into their veins.
The four prison guards were black, three women and one man. They were friendly and spent their time reading the newspaper and clipping coupons from the Thanksgiving circulars. Two guards had guns and wore bulletproof vests.
My Mom and I were in our corner, with just enough room that we weren't bumping into anyone else.
One nurse took care of all three patients (and possibly others in another room). She flew in and out like a smart, attentive hummingbird, hovering, changing bags of drugs, responding to beeps on the IV machines, taking blood pressures.
Volunteers came in and offered juice, DVD players, and any small comfort they could.
I felt like a fly on the wall--present for my Mom but an observer of all the rest. People weren't silent but thankfully no one was too chatty. We didn't share personal stories in any way shape or form. We just existed in this space together.
So this was a room where the worst had already happened. People had committed crimes and been put in jail. People already had cancer and were praying that the treatment would work. Forget abstract fears--this was life.
But in that moment at least you could feel that you were in good hands. The nurses and volunteers at UNC are incredibly caring. The professional staff is busy but attentive. And I was impressed that the comfort volunteers treated the prisoner-patients just as kindly as anyone else.
I've been dealing with lots of extended family drama and the nurses' example inspired me, and served as a powerful example of how to act. Don't be ruled by fears of what might happen down the road--the chemo might not work--but focus on the tasks at hand. What can we do to make people feel better right now, as we also deliver treatment that can solve the root of the problem? The nurses are caring, professional, competent, and they also have good boundaries. They employ a bit of detachment that is necessary so as not to get drawn too deeply into the human drama continuously unfolding in front of their eyes. They do their job in a caring way, keeping their attention focused on their role and what they can do.
It reminds me of what Zen teacher Cheri Huber says about acceptance, "First we accept, then we get to work." The feeling I get when we go to the chemo center is one of hope but no promises. Everyone who is there is at a tough starting point. Anyone can end up in that treatment chair, which should be made available to all who need it.
The experience with the prisoners was strange and illuminating. Cancer is scary but I wasn't scared by the people in the room. I could handle being there. Even in the face of the undeniable power differential of armed guards and cuffed prisoners, because of the humane way everyone was treating one another, it truly felt like everyone was a child of God in the chemo room.