Visiting the Sick

The hospital patient has a right to expect comfort and encouragement from his pastor. Here's how to make your calls effective.

A. D. Inglish is pastor of the Woodbury and Laurel, New Jersey, Seventh-day Adventist churches.

The most important principle in making the hospital call is: Do it! Although this may appear simplistic to the point of ridiculousness, I am convinced that such is not the case. Complaints by a significant number of church members, voiced over a considerable period of time, have led me to believe that more pastors than we might care to admit are lax in their attitude toward visiting their parishioners in the hospital.

Reasons probably include a busy schedule, uncertainty about what to say to a seriously ill patient, and perhaps in some cases, the common feeling that hospitals are uncomfortable places to visit, reminding us, as they do, of 'our own vulnerability to injury, disease, and death.

Whatever the reason for not making hospital calls, it is not good enough. If the pastor cannot find the time, he must take the time. If he is uneasy in the presence of disease and death, he must go in spite of his uneasiness. The patient is far more uneasy and has a right to expect comfort and encouragement from his pastor.

Indeed, it is difficult to overestimate the importance of the hospital call to the patient. Illness and injury tend to strip away the usual veneer of self-assurance, as any experienced pastor can verify. Even if the patient is in the hospital for the proverbial "tests," he is still some what nervous and apprehensive. His pastor should be there.

Admittedly pastors have difficulty visiting their hospitalized members because of the current brevity of hospital confinements. There was a time when a per son admitted to the hospital, for what ever reason, was almost certain to be there at least a week. Today it is not unusual for a patient to be admitted one day and discharged the next. Many hospital stays last no more than two or three days. Thus it becomes all the more imperative that the pastor not delay when he learns that a church member is in the hospital.

Occasionally a hospital stay is so brief that the pastor does not even learn of it until the patient has been discharged and is at home again. If this happens, there is nothing to do, of course, except call on the patient at home and explain what happened.

Such slip-ups can happen even when a hospital stay is not brief. Once, I did not learn until Thursday afternoon that an elderly member who lived in another town had been critically ill in the hospital since the preceding Sunday evening. As day after day went by and the pastor did not call, her grown children, members of another church, had grown increasingly (and understandably) critical of their mother's church and its pastor. Several church members knew of the situation, but everyone assumed that someone else had already told me. Needless to say, when I finally learned of the situation, I hurried to the hospital immediately. I explained to the children what had happened and found them very understanding, once they realized that I had not stayed away because of carelessness or indifference. However, prevention is far better than a good explanation.

The solution is very simple: tell your church members that you would appreciate being notified of any accident or illness, even if everyone is sure that you have already heard about it. But be prepared to get twenty-five phone calls each time someone goes into the hospital!

If you make hospital calls in the morning; you will often find that the patient is not in his room. X-rays, tests, and various kinds of therapy are usually done during the morning hours. It is impractical to wait for the patient to return, since there is no way of knowing how long he will be gone.

If you find the patient in his room, what should you do, as his pastor, to make your visit effective? Let's look, first, at some things not to do.

Visitation "don'ts"

Don't sit on the patient's bed or throw your coat on it.

Don't speak loudly. Loud noises of any kind can be very irritating to a sick person.

Don't tell the patient about your uncle who had the same symptoms and recovered to live another forty years (or who died in two weeks, as the case may be).

Don't comment on the patient's choice of a doctor, or on the doctor's choice of treatment. Don't suggest treatments or remedies; that is the doctor's job, not yours.

Above all, don't imitate the pastor who made hospital calls on his way home from funerals and gave the patient all the details of the funeral service!

Don't be too quick to ask specific questions about the patient's illness. If you have not been told, it is usually best not to ask. A patient who is still reeling from the knowledge that he has a malignancy may not be ready to talk about it. If he wants you to know, he will tell you. Women, in particular, may be embarrassed if a male visitor, even the pas tor, asks about their condition. A little tact will be much appreciated.

If you know the patient's illness, and it is something not generally considered dangerous, you may wish to reassure him. However, be careful not to speak of it as though it were trivial. For one thing, you do not know that it is trivial in this particular case. For another, no illness is ever trivial to the patient himself.

Don't stay long. Patients tire easily, and while they may not offend you by saying so, they will appreciate it if you stay no longer than five or ten minutes. They need the comfort and reassurance that you can give them, but they also need rest. In certain individual cases, of course, this rule may need to be modified, and you will want to spend more time with the patient, but be alert to leave when you should.

Never, under any circumstances, argue with a patient. Sick people are naturally beset by anxiety, which will occasionally manifest itself in irritability or hostility. You may even find a patient who is "spoiling for a fight." If so, try to keep the conversation on neutral subjects. If this does not work, keep smiling and tell the patient, "We'll talk about that when you're feeling better." If he still persists, cut your visit short and leave.

Don't feel that you must keep up a steady flow of questions and conversation. A moment or two of silence will give the patient a chance to say what is on his mind. He may have serious matters and questions that he will never express if there is no break in your flow of talk. Be especially alert for any hint, however tentative, that the patient wants to talk about spiritual things. If he does, breathe a silent prayer that no one will interrupt. You might even want to close the door so that you and he can talk privately.

Don't rush the patient if he begins to speak of spiritual things. Let him go at his own speed. And above all, listen. Give him your undivided attention. If he has questions, answer them seriously and honestly. He may want to make something right, either with the Lord or with some person. Your assurance of God's forgiving love will do more for him at this moment than anything else.

Visitation "do's"

Now for some positive tips on making your hospital visits effective. Most hospitals will allow a pastor to see patients outside regular visiting hours. Some will allow him to park free in the hospital parking lot; a few will give him a pass permitting him to park in the employees' or doctors' parking lot. Remember that all these privileges are just that—privileges, not rights—and are not to be abused. Any time you are in the hospital, during visiting hours or otherwise, re member that the work of the hospital staff takes precedence over your visit. Don't enter a room if doctors or nurses are with the patient. If hospital personnel come into the room while you are there, offer to leave until they are finished.

If the patient's door is closed when you arrive, it is best to go to the nurses' station and ask whether it is all right for you to go in. If it is, knock on the door and wait for a response before you enter.

In cold weather, stop by the washroom and run warm water over your hands before entering the patient's room. He is accustomed to the warmth of the hospital and is in a weakened condition. The touch of a cold hand can be a very unpleasant shock.

If the patient is facing serious surgery (and any surgery is serious to the one being operated on), ask whether he would like you to come to the hospital on the day of surgery and wait with the family. The knowledge that his pastor will see him and pray with him just be fore his operation will have a wonder fully calming effect on an apprehensive patient.

Always pray with the patient before you leave; let nothing deter you. It is one of the most important parts of your visit, if not the most important part. You are a minister of the gospel. The patient knows this and expects that you will pray for him; indeed, he would be surprised if you did not do so.

Even in those sometimes awkward cases when the patient is not a member of your faith, and you are calling upon him at the request of a relative or friend who is, offer to pray for him. Rarely will you meet with a refusal. Even those who profess to have no faith will usually appreciate prayer when they are ill. If the patient should decline, you must, of course, respect his wishes. But don't hesitate simply because his attitude indicates he would be annoyed or embarrassed by prayer. Many a nonresponsive or sophisticated exterior hides a frightened soul that is desperately longing for the comfort of God's presence.

Your prayer at the bedside should be brief and to the point. Ask the Lord to comfort and sustain the patient and to restore him to health, if in His wisdom He sees that it would be for His own glory and the patient's ultimate good to do so. Do not make an unconditional request that the patient be healed. Even the Lord Jesus Himself, in Gethsemane, prayed, "Not my will, but thine, be done."

Remember to include in your prayer the patient's family. A hospital stay is also stressful for the family members who remain at home. There is the strain of repeated visits to the hospital, which must somehow be fitted in between other duties; family income may have been drastically reduced, or cut off altogether; worry about the patient's recovery is a constant burden. By all means, do not fail to pray that the Lord will sustain the family, as well as the patient.

Prayer in a hospital room will some times have to be offered under adverse conditions. People visiting the other patient in the room may be laughing and talking loudly; a television set may be blaring rock music or a soap opera. (I cannot remember even a single instance when the patient in the other bed has turned down the TV volume when I offered prayer.) But don't allow any of this to dissuade you from praying.

If the patient in the other bed is awake and does not have visitors at the moment, introduce yourself and express the hope that he will have a quick recovery. If you have had the opportunity to do this before you pray, be sure to include him in your prayer. Often the church member I came to visit has told me that after I left, the patient in the other bed expressed surprise and pleasure that I had included him in my prayer. At times they added that while they appreciated being included in my prayer, they were saddened that it was a pastor of another faith who had prayed for them, while their own minister had not even seen them.

Usually the pastor will be permitted to see patients even in the intensive-care and coronary-care units on the same basis as the family. Never take such permission for granted, however. Always check at the nurses' station be fore entering an intensive-care or coronary-care unit.

When visiting a terminally ill patient, make every effort to learn, before you visit, whether the patient knows his true condition. If so, you may speak more freely than you otherwise would. Do not, of course, try to force the patient to speak of spiritual things if he does not wish to do so; but certainly make an effort to lead the conversation in that direction. Remember that you are speaking to one whose life is drawing to a close. If he has given his heart to Christ, you have the privilege of comforting him with the assurance that his approaching death is not the end. If he has never surrendered his life to the Lord, or has once done so but since drifted away, you may have the even more wonderful privilege of leading him to the Lord. The same promise, from the same Saviour, is as open to the terminally ill patient of today as it was to the thief just before his death nearly twenty centuries ago.

If you have the opportunity at all to do so, present the gospel of salvation through faith in Jesus Christ. Present it in the simplest terms you know. Do not speak of any other doctrine. This is not the time for abstract theology. It may be that the few words you are able to speak will bring one of the Shepherd's lost sheep back to Him at the last moment.

If the terminally ill patient is not aware of the seriousness of his condition, be very careful what you say. It is my personal conviction, which I hold very strongly, that a terminally ill patient has the right to know his true condition. However, this is not your decision. Unless the family has asked you to break the news to him, never take this duty upon yourself. The family's feeling in this matter may be equally deep, and you must respect it whether or not you agree.

You may find yourself in the very awkward situation in which the patient suspects that his illness is terminal but has met with evasions and silence when he has tried to learn the truth. He may ask you point-blank whether he is going to die. What can you do? If the doctor and/or the family does not want the patient to know the truth, you must not defy this wish, however strongly you may feel that it is a mistake. On the other hand, neither can you lie to the patient, and an evasion will not only confirm his suspicions but probably cause him to distrust you, as well.

One possible solution is to tell the patient that everyone must die some time, and that it may be God's plan to allow his life to close now, or it may not. You can say this quite honestly, since there are many cases of hopelessly ill patients recovering. Only God can know with certainty the outcome of this particular case. If he is a Christian, you might remind him of Paul's statement in Romans 14:8: "Whether we live there fore, or die, we are the Lord's." Point out to him that this verse says plainly that living or dying, as important as that is, is overshadowed by the fact that he is completely in the hands of One who loves him beyond all human understanding.

It is not likely that the family will ask you to lie deliberately to the patient about his condition. But if they should make such a request, you must kindly yet firmly refuse. You can have no part in any such thing.

If you receive word that one of your members has been rushed to the hospital because of a stroke, heart attack, or serious accident, get to the hospital as soon as you can. The family members will be frightened and disoriented. Your presence will be a steadying influence for which they will be grateful. In addition, you may be able to give them such practical help as phoning other family members or arranging for someone to pick up the children from school while they stay at the hospital. Remain with the family until the situation has stabilized. This may be in a matter of several hours, but there is probably nothing that you could do during those long hours that would benefit anyone else as much as your presence at the hospital will benefit the patient and his family. They will long remember that you were there when they needed you.

As a pastor, you have many demands upon your time. More, probably, than you can meet. You always will. There fore, priorities must be set. I urge you to put the hospital call near the top of the list. Remember that one of the things the Saviour will say to the redeemed in the day of judgment is "I was sick, and ye visited me" (Matt. 25:36).


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A. D. Inglish is pastor of the Woodbury and Laurel, New Jersey, Seventh-day Adventist churches.

February 1981

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