Iron Mountain ski jump

Iron Mountain ski jump

Thursday, January 29, 2015


CHRIST IN WINTER: Reflections on Faith from a Place of Winter for the Years of Winter… ©

I did CPE [Clinical Pastoral Education] at the University of Iowa hospital when the girl who would become the mother of our grandchildren was only nine years old. I had no idea that 27 years later she would produce the world’s cutest grandson, or that he would spend the second year of his life in that hospital.

My supervisor was David Belgum, who, along with Granger Westberg, and building on the work of CPE pioneers like Anton Boisen and Carroll Wise, were developing a new relationship between medicine and religion, specifically between physicians and pastors, one that never quite worked out the way they hoped.

We had an excellent group of CPE students. Most of us were in our thirties and had ten to fifteen years of experience as pastors. One I’ll call Greg. He was very handsome, well-spoken, but down-to-earth, sort of like Joey Tribbiani playing Dr. Drake Ramoray.

One day he was sent to call on a middle-aged woman who had a terminal diagnosis. “How does it feel to be dying?” he asked her, in his Drake Ramoray voice. She screamed. It was the first time she had heard her diagnosis.

Like many family members and medical folks at the time, it was felt it was best to keep a diagnosis like that from the patient. There are good reasons for that sort of secrecy, but it almost always backfires. In this case, it backfired just because of a lack of communication between doctor and pastor, the very thing David Belgum was trying to facilitate. It wasn’t really Greg’s fault, but he got the blame.

George Paterson didn’t get the blame, but he got the fall-out. He was the hospital chaplain, and had the responsibility to be the next one up in that room, to deal both with Greg and the patient he had traumatized. George did it. He had what Ed Friedman called “a non-anxious presence.” He turned the whole fiasco into a lesson for the hospital on communication, a lesson for Greg, and the rest of us, IN CPE, on sensitivity, and a quick walk-through with the patient in all the steps of death and dying. 

Later Dr. Belgum had another middle-aged woman, one who knew she was dying, talk to our group about how to deal with patients like her. She essentially said, “Be like George Paterson.”

She told us how George Paterson had come to her room after she was given the diagnosis. “At first I was confused,” she said. “I knew him. There is this dive downtown I like to go to. Some nights a little jazz combo played. He was the trombonist. I know music is a soothing thing for someone who is dying, but jazz trombone? But he didn’t play trombone. We talked. He had just the right combination of strength and availability.”

Many years later, when grandson Joe was in that hospital, George had retired, but he and Ida Belle were there for Joe and his parents, and his grandparents, with just the right combination of strength and availability.

Even later, as George himself was dying, a young woman with a guitar stood at the side of his room and played and sang very softly. At his funeral, the combo from that dive played, without a trombone. Just the right combination of strength and availability.

John Robert McFarland

The “place of winter” mentioned in the title line is Iron Mountain, in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where life is defined by winter even in the summer! [This phrase is explained in the post for March 20, 2014.]

I tweet as yooper1721.

I also write the Just Words blog, about writing and reading.

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