VISITING the sick forms an important part of the minister's work. He can be a great blessing at the hospital as he ministers to the spiritual needs of those who are ill. The minister is really a doctor of the soul, but he should also know something about sick minds and bodies.
Hospital visitation with its varied opportunities is a form of evangelism that demands the very best of the pastor. He should know that the function of religion in time of stress is to build a more courageous self through an active faith in God.
What does the minister expect as he enters the sickroom? He may find a patient who faces unknown problems of fear over the outcome of the illness, anxiety over loss of work and cost of hospitalization, or concern over the family at home. Perhaps the patient is suffering from a feeling of guilt and condemnation, such as one who has killed someone in a car accident and badly injured himself while under the influence of liquor. Perhaps the person you are about to approach is one who fell asleep while smoking, thus causing a fire that burned the house down and caused the death of three children. Maybe the room holds the patient who heard voices telling her to destroy her husband with a butcher knife. In order to escape the voices she ran out into the traffic and was hurt. Is the picture overdrawn? No, these are experiences that actually happened to patients visited by a minister during recent months at a hospital.
The pastor engaged in hospital visitation must be prepared for any situation, must be "all things unto all men." Before he enters the room he sometimes does not know whether the patient is old or young; about to have surgery or just returned from it; scared of what the doctors will find or of what they have alreadyfound; likes the food or violently dislikes it; is an Adventist, or a Baptist; full of courage, or mentally ill. This is surely a field big enough to challenge every talent. After about 3,000 such visits in the past year, I can personally say that I feel very inadequate to approach the sickroom without first seeking the guidance of Jesus Christ.
Listen to the Patient
There is no cut-and-dried formula that I could outline to you today for visiting the sick in the hospital. The minister must be on his toes in order to relate himself to the needs as they present themselves. He must be guided by intuition, and sense what to say and do at the right moment. He should remember that the first basic need of people generally is to have you listen to them with interest and attention. Those who are critically ill may not find this necessary, but those who are well enough to talk should be encouraged to do so, for the ventilation of feelings does bring tremendous relief. Permit people to express themselves in a friendly environment without fear of retaliation, and consider the things told you as confidential.
Some suggestions for the visitation of the sick may prove helpful.
First of all, remember that you are part of a team trying to restore health to those who have lost it, and that you must cooperate with hospital administration policies.
If you see a "No Visitors" sign on the door, or if the door is closed, please check with the nurse on the floor for information or for the all-clear word. Nothing is more embarrassing to a patient than to have the pastor walk in during a treatment.
When you enter the sickroom, do so quietly but confidently, and never on tiptoe. Do not talk in a loud voice with forced cheerfulness, but neither should you whisper. Act as natural as possible. If the sick person offers to shake hands, do so, but it is better not to shake hands, I believe. Wear rubber heels—the noise of leather heels is most undesirable. Personally I prefer to stand by the bed rather than sit down, because the eye level when seated beside a hospital bed is too low for comfort for yourself or the patient. In a home where the bed is lower, it would be preferable to be seated, but in either situation, be relaxed. Do not sit on the bed or jiggle it in any way, as this can be annoying and even painful to a patient.
Do not show horror or shock at sight of a missing arm or eye or terrible burns. It is not best to shield the handicapped. They must face reality, and you can help them right from the beginning by your own acceptance of them as they are.
A quiet humor can be an indispensable asset when visiting the convalescent. Of course, it would be out of place to stimulate a very ill person to laugh heartily even if he could enjoy the humor, and it would not be good policy to cause an appendectomy patient to literally burst his sides with loud laughter. However, a good chuckle is often like a ray of sunshine, and you should bring cheer, not gloom, to the room.
Speak Well of Personnel
Speak well of the doctor and nurses to the person you visit. Expressing confidence in the ability of the doctor does a lot to reassure the patient under his care. If you are aware of incompetence or malpractice by any doctor, you should not express it to the patient, but you may take counsel with the hospital administrator, the chief of staff, or responsible relatives.
Do not discuss his illness with the patient except as advised by the doctor, or perhaps in the most general way. Of course, you cannot ignore it, but do not show a morbid interest. And do refrain from giving advice on the treatment. Some visitors may suggest interesting substitutes for what the doctors and nurses are trying to do. An old Irish sister who visited me one time when I was ill earnestly urged me to boil nails in water and drink the water! I was thankful she did not insist that I eat the nails too!
The visiting pastor, knowing something about the gregarious nature of some people, will realize that the herd instinct gets strong in the public ward among those not actually feeling ill although confined to bed. The pastor who gets acquainted with the others in the ward promotes good fellowship in the group, and thus contributes to the mental health of those who may need such therapy. A minister who concentrates his attention entirely on one person, while others in the same room are ignored, limits his influence and is criticized when he leaves.
Should you pray or read the Bible? You are there to serve the best interests and needs of the patient, therefore it is impossible to follow the same pattern for everyone or for every situation. You must have a feeling for the right timing of even these desirable ministrations. There are often situations when you can read short passages from the Bible. Knowing you to be a minister of the gospel, people usually do not resent your request to offer a cheerful, earnest prayer on their behalf. Couch the wording of your prayer to suit the Roman Catholic, the Jew, the nonbeliever, or the church member.
Best Time to Visit
What is the best time to visit in the hospital? I feel that the morning is not good, because treatments are usually given then, and it is also the time when the doctors make their rounds. The visiting hours are a poor time for a minister to make his call. Therefore, I would say the hour before or after visiting hours is the most suitable time. It is also better to call and have prayer with the patient the night before surgery rather than the morning of the operation. For one thing, he is probably groggy in the morning with medications. Your thoughtful visit and calming prayer the night before will help him get a good night's rest and he will be prepared spiritually for xvhat he may have to face.
The length of the visit depends on the condition and interest of the patient. Under ordinary circumstances the visit should not be longer than five to ten minutes, and even three minutes can be very profitable. It is quite an art to appear unhurried even in a short visit, but this is important. When the time comes to leave, then leave.
The minister is getting close to following in the footsteps of his Master when he walks the corridors of a hospital. Christ's words, "I was sick, and ye visited me," are the best commentary that could be said of the thoughtful minister by those ill at home or in the hospital.
The minister who understands this responsibility and prepares himself for it can be a positive influence for health and happiness to those to whom he ministers. He can also be assured he is doing an important type of evangelism. The Lord will bless his efforts.