When I walked into the emergency room the night of the Indiana State Fair disaster this past August, I saw what looked like utter chaos. I was wrong. While the atmosphere was certainly chaotic, there was rather a controlled turmoil, with a veritable train of patients, both trauma and non-trauma streaming in through the ambulance bay and more walking in the front door.
Physicians, nurses, techs of every discipline, social workers, housekeeping, security, patient-visitor representatives, and more, all doing what they had been trained to do.
What about me, what about those of us who were chaplains, what were we to do in such a situation? There were many of us called in to work that night, the director of the department, the chaplain managers from Methodist, University Hospital and Riley Hospital for Children, as well as staff chaplains, a resident chaplain, and an adjunct chaplain representing all three downtown hospitals. In all, nine of us worked that night, with others held in reserve for call-in, if necessary. A tenth, another staff chaplain at Methodist, came in the next morning to follow up specifically on the patients injured in this tragedy.
First was the task of identification. Along with social workers and other staff, we began to identify the patients. Many had no forms of identification with them, and the emergency responders had no information, for they had just picked up the patients and ran. They were going back for more patients. The conscious patients could of course tell us who they were and whom to contact, not so the trauma patients.
We rummaged through cut-off clothing for any form of identification. We looked the patients over from top to bottom and all sides for distinguishing marks, surgery scars, tattoos, piercings, anything to help us in working with families to identify who we had.
It took a while, and many phone and face-to-face conversations with distraught family members before they were all identified, but identified they were, and correctly.
The next task was to notify those whose families we had not already been in contact. Home phones, cell phones, text and Twitter, all were used in the notification process.
After we knew who we had and had notified families and loved ones, we went into care mode, doing that which we were trained to do, provide spiritual and emotional comfort and support.
It soon became apparent that in a disaster like this one, even this became something more than the norm. We are all trained to talk with families, comfort and assist them with our presence and with our prayers. We assist medical staff in helping them get the information they need. There was all that, but there was more.
The waiting rooms had not been cleaned, the housekeeping staff having the more urgent task of keeping the rooms in emergency clean. So we straightened up waiting areas for the comfort of the families.
Many were darkened when we entered, and sometimes the light switches were placed in the most unusual places, as far from the door as possible. We found them, and turned them on. No small comfort for families coming from the darkest night they had ever imagined.
The Red Cross supplied coffee and other refreshments, which we willingly served to all who came.
We carried messages from family to family, from staff to staff, staff to family. We escorted those who needed to move from place to place and were too utterly lost in their anxiety to be able to navigate on their own, no matter how good the directions.
In short, our care took the form of whatever needed to be done, whenever it needed to be done, for whomever it needed to be done, within the scope of our training, ability and capability.
We prayed. We prayed with patients, families, staff, one another, alone. We prayed with and for all who were in need of prayer of any kind on that long, hard night.
The night passed, patients and families were cared for, the hospital settled back into its routine, which is still at a higher level of activity than the outside world, but we got back to what we consider “normal.”
Though our lives might be back to that “normal”, for those of us who were there, we will never be the same.
The Rev. Gordon W. Burton, serves as Staff Chaplain at IUHealth Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis.