Photo Credit: UnclePockets, Flikr: Grady, Wikimedia.org
For seven years, I worked in Atlanta’s Grady Memorial Hospital. At that time, it was THE hospital (rather than the “main hospital” of the Grady Health System) with 18 floors and 1100 beds. Grady is a “safety net” hospital, extending care to the urban poor. It’s also a Level 1 trauma center. Situated in downtown Atlanta, perched alongside major interstate highways (I-85/75 and I-20), Grady echoes with sirens sounding constantly, signaling the arrival of victims of strokes, gunshot wounds or high-speed auto accidents.
Way above the crazy chaos of the trauma center, my job took me into the relative quiet of the 10th floor oncology service. 10B was my unit, serving cancer patients in treatment or in the days of dying when treatment failed. I was the oncology clinical nurse specialist, responsible for training and assistive to nurse, patient, and family support. Many days, it was the extra set of hands that was needed the most.
What happened in that space of seven years, early in my career, taught me deep lessons about life and caring.
I came to Grady after finishing graduate school at Emory University…too young and inexperienced really for the job and the confidence given me. Mary Woody, the director of nursing at that time, gave me wise counsel. “Whatever is done for the patient, be it housekeeping or medical treatment, learn as much as you can about its delivery, and do whatever you can to serve at all those levels.”
I listened and did my best to follow her counsel.
Almost all my colleagues and our patients were African-American and urban. I was not, having grown up in a small town outside the city, in a school system only integrated while I was in high school. In the quiet moments on the unit (few but treasured), I would listen to stories unlike anything I’d ever experienced. Especially from the older ones. Stories of years living in segregation (Grady was actually built as a segregated hospital with wings opposite each other for the care of blacks and whites). Stories of years after, living in forced integration.
One day I want to write some of those stories. Having grown up in a home where my mom taught us to love without distinctions for differences, I had actually missed seeing what it must have been like for those who lived every day marked somehow by the color of their skin.
Again, I was very young during those years at Grady and drank in the stories…marveling at the courage and resilience of both my older colleagues and our patients and families. Taken aback at times, to be honest, by the clear declarations of my “shared responsibility”, being white, of past atrocities they had experienced. If I could have asked forgiveness for all of that, I would have. Instead, “I’m sorry” seemed so inadequate.
There were many lessons for me in those years. Here’s the story I wanted to share today:
It was the end of my work day…as I walked off the unit, thoughts of beloved patients who might not make it to tomorrow clouded my mind. At the bank of elevators, I punched the down button. Finally, the doors of one opened, and it was packed. Often, because of how full and slow Grady’s elevators were, people would go up to come down.
Maybe in deference to my being in nurse’s uniform, or just out of the kindness of strangers, there was a push backward and a space was made for me. I gratefully filled that space. Then the other elevator occupants relaxed and squeezed me in their embrace as the door closed.
At the end of the day, everybody just wanted to get home. That tight fit continued all those floors down to ground. Me and my white uniform – all that whiteness enveloped by so many tired, black family members. Tired like me or more so. The smell of sweat and potato chips, and the heat of so many bodies, caused me to withdraw back into my own small thoughts.
As if in audible voice, God broke through that noise in my head with: “I love you all the same.” All of us, in that elevator – the poor and the privileged. We are important to Him. It is so easy to fall into our own swollen self-importance – whether it relates to position or education or any other state of being we take comfort in…or through which we isolate ourselves.
God’s heart toward us and ours toward each other – that is transforming. That can be world-changing.
Until that moment, I had felt no compassion for those surrounding me in that small space. We were squashed together never to probably see each other again once we reached street level. Yet, in that moment, at the beckoning of God to take notice, I remembered that we all matter to Him. Whatever was going on in each of our lives – bone-weariness or deep sorrow or great anticipation at good news – we mattered to Him.
God calls us to enter into the generous love He has for us and for our neighbor.
If my companions in that elevator knew my thoughts that moment, they might have pulled back a bit from me. I just wanted to turn around and take in all those faces – to bask in the radiance of His love for each one. At that moment, I wanted to rejoice with those rejoicing and weep with those who would weep beyond that elevator. I was low and brought up by their small kindness and I wanted to somehow do the same.
Was there a glow in that tiny room of strangers? There was for me.
Of course, I didn’t strike up friendships with those who nudged out after me on the ground floor at the last opening of that elevator door. We all walked out into the Georgia late afternoon sun, all together, and then peeled off to different destinations. I went on to my car in the employee parking lot – another privilege of mine, among so many.
That day, my heart opened wider to where I might fit in the Kingdom of God, and what His purposes were for us – to love Him and to love others as He sees them and loves them. The patients, families, and colleagues I loved already…and the strangers along the way.
Seeing the people, He [Jesus] felt compassion for them, because they were distressed and dispirited like sheep without a shepherd. Then He said to His disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. “Therefore beseech the Lord of the harvest to send out workers into His harvest.” – Matthew 9:36-38