IN THE ROUND of planning and ex ecuting large projects for the church, a busy pastor may often overlook one of the most important kinds of soul-win ning work he can do—visiting the sick. Ellen White declares, "By visiting the people, talking, praying, sympathizing with them, you will win hearts. This is the highest missionary work that you can do." —Testimonies, vol. 9, p. 41.
Until you have been through it your self you may not realize how lonely, frightened, and discouraged a person may be who has become ill and is con fined in a hospital. Everything looks strange and different when viewed from the perspective of one who is flat on his back, eyeing the ceiling. Pain, weak ness, and the feeling of utter depend ency may lead a person to spend his unoccupied time reflecting on the cause of his misfortune. Some of these reflec tions may lead to guilt feelings.
Besides being a minister's wife, I am a registered nurse. This gives me addi tional insight into the needs of people who are in pain and perhaps frightened or discouraged. At such a time of crisis a person needs support and strength from friends, and an intelligent, sensitive pastor or local church officer can make a unique contribution to a patient's spir itual welfare. I have found that there truly is a "balm in Gilead," and I would like to share some observations on how visitors can bring it to the hospital pa tient.
To be most effective in visiting a pa tient—perhaps a member of the local congregation—the pastor should make some preparations. Whenever possible, try to get information in advance about the nature of the patient's illness. Is it a minor sickness, or a serious disease, perhaps with a terminal outlook? Or does it involve the loss of a limb or other anatomical feature that will result in disability or some stigma after recov ery? How much has the patient been told about his condition and prospects? The pastor can usually get this kind of information from the attending physi cian, the family, or even a nurse work ing on the unit.
The timing of the visit is important. Usually you should not call on hospital patients in the morning, because they may be involved in various tests, Xrays, and treatments, or even be under the influence of pre-operative medica tions. Nor should you call late in the evening, because patients are often given medications about nine o'clock and are prepared to go to sleep. On Sab bath afternoon an Adventist patient may be flooded with visits by well-wish ing friends from the church. The best time, therefore, to plan for hospital visits would be some weekday afternoon or early evening. Such a call, for in stance, the evening before a patient is to undergo surgery may be of great signif icance to him or her.
The pastor's attire and behavior dur ing a hospital visit are important. The patient, as well as the hospital person nel, sees the pastor as a representative of the church, so you should be neatly dressed. If you come outside regular visiting hours, stop at the nurses' sta tion and identify yourself, then ask per mission to visit the individual. If the patient's door is closed, knock on it lightly before entering. Respect the pa tient's privacy.
How can you best communicate when you enter and sit at a patient's bedside? Give a friendly greeting. When you speak, do so clearly and no more loudly than needed for him to hear. Be a good listener, paying attention to what the patient says and commenting on his concerns. If he seems to be worried about his family during his absence from home, or about his prospects for returning home, encourage him to talk about it. If he is concerned about dying, don't turn him off; listen to him. If he asks about you and the church, respond to his interests, but don't get carried away with talk about your family, your hobbies, or the problems of the church. Especially avoid discussing other ill nesses or bad hospital experiences.
Generally speaking, the visit should be brief. Whenever possible, read a por tion of Scripture, comment on it, and pray with the patient. Ask for peace and strength for him, the presence of the Holy Spirit, and for healing according to the Lord's will. Remember his concerns, his family, and the nurses and doctors who care for him. Don't forget to men tion the names of other patients who may be in the same room and within hearing distance. If he has the strength to read, leave him a booklet on the promises of God or some other helpful, inspiring topic.
Sometimes you may arrive at the room when the patient appears to be sleeping or in a comatose condition. If you talk with the nurse or a family member, remember that the patient may actually be listening. Hearing is one of the last senses to linger when the perceptual field is narrowed. If family members begin to talk of the patient's illness or even discuss funeral arrange ments, politely usher them out into the hall and remind them gently that their words may carry farther than they think.
A hospital visit by a dedicated Chris tian worker can be a real asset to the healing of a patient. Surgery, medica tion, and rest are important to a pa tient's recovery, but a will to live, peace of mind, a willingness to bring one's life into harmony with the God of nature may often be equally important. Of course, an ill-managed visit may do the reverse. One day a patient's wife came to us frantically, asking us to give her husband something to calm him down. The pastor had just left, after praying loud and long for God to heal him—"O God, heal this man; heal him, heal him." The patient was greatly aroused emotionally, and despite the maximum allowable medication it took him hours to relax and get to sleep.
On the other hand, I have seen many instances where the patient was greatly improved by the visits of thoughtful, serious church workers who would help him sort out his confused, anxious thoughts into a framework of trust and confidence. Instead of becoming embit tered by his misfortune the patient was able to claim the promises of God and face his future with cheer. I have heard comments by personnel indicating im pressions for good. Not only did the pa tient benefit but a real witness was given on behalf of Christ and the church.
Working as a supervisor in a small community hospital where, due to sev eral unfortunate experiences in the past, pastors are limited to visiting only those who are actually members of their church, I have a real concern that Ad ventist ministers always be aware of both their responsibility to the patient and the impact they make on hospital personnel.
May the experience of those we visit reflect the full meaning of the words in the Master's parable where the King says of His accepted people, "I was sick, and ye visited me" (Matt. 25: 36).
We would appreciate additional discussion of this topic by one of our hospital chaplains.