I am not a priest, but I felt like one this week.
I work as an occupational therapist in a children’s hospital, serving the littlest of patients and their families. These little ones are born too soon, ill-equipped for survival, and often struggle to breathe. Some have had more surgeries than birthdays. Their parents sit beside isolettes and cribs and beds, holding tiny hands, learning medical acronyms, living in tenuous hope.
This is my daily working environment. It is both weighty and beautiful. I get to work alongside an amazing team to serve, strengthen, and heal. I chose those words carefully. We serve the little ones and their families. We seek to strengthen not only muscles, but also relationships and faith. We heal because we focus our treatment on the whole person and the whole family. We attend to minds, hearts, souls, and bodies. We cannot always cure, but we can always heal.
To Wear Priestly Gloves
When I put on my scrubs and head into work, I never know what will greet me. It could be celebrations over removal of monitors and discharge orders, or difficult, life-changing news. The latter was my experience this week.
I had been working with a sweet little boy who was born with significant genetic anomalies. He was not expected to survive his birth. Placed on comfort care measures, he received occupational and physical therapy to assist with swelling and tightness in his joints and muscles. I met with the family, explained my role, and tenderly massaged and stretched this little person. His heartrate stabilized, and he slept. I talked to his mom and dad throughout to see how they were dealing with the hospitalization. I wanted to provide healing on both fronts.
As scans and tests returned and news became dire, the family decided against life-sustaining interventions. Together with the medical team, they decided to remove the breathing tube as a trial to see if this little man could breathe on his own. This was slated to happen at noon. The medical team was not confident he would survive this change and prepared for the worst. The family had realistic expectations, but they also loved their son, so after they made the decision to remove the tube, they also requested that therapy—me—come at 11 a.m. for what could be one final massage. One final session of calming and comfort.
All my years of training, both medical and theological, could not have prepared me for what was happening in that room. I felt priestly. I massaged and stretched and ranged little limbs and little muscles, and moved fluid, trying to make both baby and family breathe easier, even as the significance of what could happen weighed on us all. It was a terrible and beautiful moment. Mom cried, Dad consoled, and I hugged them and said, “Thank you for sharing your son with us. His life is valuable, and I am so honored to have gotten to be a part of it. Thank you for asking me to come today.” And as I took off my gloves and left the room, it felt like I was disrobing from priestly vestments and leaving a holy place.
To Honor What God Has Made
Moments like this occur in crises. Something happened that was more important than prolonging life. We honored the dignity and preciousness of life. We could not predict the future, but in that moment, we honored life.
This is what the intersection of faith and work looks like for me. My work says that there is little hope of recovery and progress and that our limited resources would be better used elsewhere. My faith says that this little person is alive, valuable, and worthy of my best effort.
I am called to work for the glory of God, which can mean many things. I can share my faith with my coworkers. I can work hard and meet my employer’s expectations. I can continue my training and provide the best therapy possible. All of these are noble and wonderful goals. But I believe there is something deeper as well; I can honor God by the act of working for him. Work existed before the fall of Adam and Eve. It is not a punishment, then, but integral to God’s design. Adam and Eve worked the garden and tended it before sin entered the scene (Gen. 2:15). They served their Maker by doing good work and ascribing value and honor to what God had made.
We can do the same. Work performed for the Lord is holy work. That’s why I felt like a priest as I served this family. I was able to affirm value, weight, and beauty in brokenness. We could not cure, but we could heal.