The hospital is a special place, where it is not always so easy for a priest to get in and “blend in with the scenery” when his priestly duties call him to the bed of a patient. It has nothing to do with legalities, which actually state that the administrators of medical institutions are obligated to provide citizens the opportunity to meet with a priest in order to satisfy their religious needs. The problem is the people, the human factor.
It is no secret that among medical personnel there can be greatly differing attitudes toward the Church—from loyal to sharply negative. Over my more than ten years of hospital service I have experienced the whole gamut of attitudes.
“What did you want?” asks an emergency room doctor, not wanting to let me into the emergency room on a Sunday.
“Are you a paramedic?” I can hear a disdainful note.
This is normal, and you quickly get used to it. It is more of a challenge to suppress your irritation.
“No,” I try to answer as calmly as possible.
“I personally don’t consider this necessary and I can’t allow you to go in,” the doctor answers.
“You know,” I say, “the matter is that this question has already been settled for me and for you, on the level of the Department of Health and the diocese. With the personal patronage of the governor. All doctors who are heads of departments have been sent a paper from above, which they are obligated to observe. If I don’t see the woman who called me, I will be forced to report the obstacle. After all, I can’t break in with a fight.”
That last remark was obviously over the top. After smirkingly looking me over, the doctor, who is larger than me in size, sums up that I would lose such a fight. I believe him, feel ashamed of my lack of restraint, and—O the wonder!—pass through with his permission; only of course after hearing a few unpleasant words aimed at me. Our parishioner was very glad to see me.
However, if one of the lower ranks of medical personnel happens onto my path, the success of this kind of conversation turns out to be quite unlikely. The chances are zero if I am obstructed by a guard or cloakroom worker. They are guided only by the fact that the head doctor has not given them any permission.
Only those hospitals where I go no less than once a week according to schedule and outside of the same are accessible for pastoral activities by force of the fact that everyone there knows me. This works more effectively than the Constitution and prior agreement with the department.
But problems arise nevertheless when the hospital adds new medical personnel.
“Why are you going into the emergency room unobstructed?” asks an employee of the bacterial laboratory of the Perinatal Center, sure that the sister of mercy and I regularly carry infections to the newborns.
I again have to repeat my memorized words.
“Do you understand what infection is?” the doctor says indignantly.
I understand. I was taught about it at the medical academy. But you can’t hang a sign around your neck.
The doctor scrupulously takes a sample from my cassock, my epitrachelion, my priestly cuffs, and my hands. She is dying to take a bacteriological sample of my chrism, because she is 146 percent sure that the main ingredients of precisely this myrrh, with which we are all anointed, are clostridium, staphylococcus, aspergillus, together with anthrax. To this I reply that the doctor would have to apply to the Holy Synod or to the Patriarch to get permission. I solemnly promise that having received a directive from my superiors I will personally hand her the baptismal box for the sake of any scientific research. Believe me, this was much simpler.
The doctor expresses the desire to personally control the “process of baptism”. I do not object. The reading of the Apostolic Epistle raises questions for her:
“Why do you repeatedly use the word “death” during your prayers? This sounds terrible and creates a mood of fatality, and we have statistics! Couldn’t you use another word?”
The passage from the Epistle of Apostle Paul to the Romans really does mention death and the dead often. If you don’t penetrate the meaning of the text, these words always strike your ears. I answer that we are talking about man dying to sin in order to live for God, and that everyone, always, is baptized with these words.
The doctor is nevertheless dissatisfied and tells me everything she thinks about an ecclesiastical presence in a hospital institution, but seeing my weary equanimity, finally guesses that her opinion doesn’t much bother me. She leaves me alone, thank God…
But she did ultimately find the source of a vicious hospital infection later—in the autoclave, where medical instruments and diapers are sterilized.
Before me in life will be many more reproachful looks, smirks, unwavering resolve not to let in the lowly priest into the hospital corridors, along with other not-so-pleasant things. But people are waiting for the priest with the Sacraments, and at least a few words of spiritual consolation. So for now I’ll just have to break in.