By John Thomas Tuft

The hallway feels like it is a mile long. My steps are halting, almost baby-like as the pain tears at my fraying spirit. Protestant chaplain for The Medical Center Beaver in Beaver County Pennsylvania in the inauspicious year of 1992, and I’m starting my morning rounds the way I always begin them: a stop at the surgical suite and then on to the Intensive Care Unit. The ground the hospital is built upon would not support the ten stories that were planned so they instead built it low and wide…and long. Three floors of long, long hallways. Sometimes it feels like the seasons could change in the slow time march traversing the trail from the timeclock at the rear employee entrance to the snack bar up near the main doors. Trudge past the doors to the Emergency Department, knowing that at some point in the coming hours the beeper on my hip will summon me to tragedy…or carnage.

And fear. Most of all is the fear that arrives barely announced. Ambulances arriving from all over three counties or the dreaded whomp-whomp of an Air Life Flight chopper on the pad. The evening before I attended a traumatic stress incident debriefing. Nurses, nurses’ aids, respiratory therapists, techs, any and all who were part of the all-hands-code earlier that morning. The doctors? Perhaps a first year resident had dared to come to this circle of human need. A young woman, 8 months pregnant, life-flighted in after running off the road, crashing and impaling on the gear shift stick on the floor. Frantic efforts to restore her pulse without success. Blood drenched scrubs all that held human spirit intact as attention turned to the baby. The keen frustration and awful sense of loss as all heroic effort was to no avail. “Damn, lost them both,” became the lone epitaph in the all too still room. Then, on to the next case. The next prayer. The next genuflection of grief and goodness.

I set my sights on the snack bar and settle in behind the counter for, well, me being me, a couple of warm chocolate chip cookies with my coffee. “Chaplain, you look tired,” says Sally, a volunteer with a soft smile and a husband battling his third go round with cancer. “It’s these hallways,” I respond with my tired joke. “Thank you for stopping to see Bob. He enjoyed talking to you. If I could only get him to church…” her voice trails off as she busies herself with refilling the half full cups gathered round this outpost of restoration. I tug the 5×7 yellow cards from my jacket and sigh. My ICU patients and charges. The top one is Hank’s. The top three are Hank’s, he’s been in there that long. They are covered with the date of each visit and the notes I scribble about our visits, our chats. And stickers. Of all kinds and colors.

Hank cannot speak but he can certainly communicate. He’s in his late sixties, no family, seriously ill, on and off a ventilator. My first visit he looked at me like I’d stepped off a space ship. Vigorously motioned to me to put away the pathetic pamphlet of prayers and lamentations offered up and pull over a chair for the privilege of his presence. He grabs his pad and pencil, writes, “Got any scotch?” I can’t help but laugh and we’re off and running. “Do you think the nurses would mind?” I ask. He shrugs and his pencil moves, “It was their idea.” We spend a few minutes in this vein before I stand to go. He waves me close. Reaches under his covers and pulls out a page of stickers, the precursors to emojis. Big, brightly colored stickers of pandas and pies, cartoons and candy, flowers and horses and everything in between. He wants me to bend over and when I do, he plants a sticker on my forehead.

As soon as I leave his room, I pull it off and stick it on the card. It becomes our daily routine. I stop in and take a seat. I learn about his life as a teacher of Latin and literature. Note by slowly scrawled note, I learn about Hank’s life, its ups and downs, loves lost and lingered, dreams pursued and dreams lost. I bring in a chess set and although I never once heard his voice, there is no mistaking the sheer joy he has in beating my pants off. Every morning, he’s my first stop in ICU and he’s always so glad to see me. The nurses tell me he gets anxious if I’m running late, so I make sure to get there. I’m there when the tube is down his throat and I’m there when he can barely keep his eyes open. But always, every time, he motions for me to bend low so he can plant a sticker on my forehead, touch my cheek, and make my moment better.

I finish my coffee, collect the cards and head off to see Hank. The hallway is no shorter as I make my way to the ICU. I round the corner and slide open the glass door. Hank’s bed is empty. My heart sinks. Nobody called me. The chess game we were playing waits forlornly on the bedstand. I feel someone at my side. A nurse gives me a sad smile and hands me something. “He wanted you to have these.” She turns to go. “Your visits meant so much to him.” I look down. I’m holding his packet of stickers.

I spend the rest of the day seeing my patients, maybe for the first time. And for each of them, I leave them with a touch on the cheek, and I plant a bright sticker on their forehead. The nurses just nod and go on to the next case.

Words are magic, and writers are wizards.