I have become convinced that one of the most important things humans do in life is to be in relationship with one another. As a pastor and hospital chaplain, all I do is tend to relationships. Relationships are complicated, complex, messy, thrilling, incredible, sad, loving, full of drama, full of meaning, some are good, some are bad, some give life, some take life.
What has enabled me to become so convinced of the importance of human relationships is my work with those who are sick and dying. I meet people when they are at the end of their lives and are often reflecting on what life has meant for them.
Without fail, all of those I have encountered have focused on their relationships — whether they were good or bad or something in between — all that matters to them at the end is relationships.
I learned this not by asking questions, interviewing, or doing a study. I learned this by listening. Just listening. And that is what I have found to be a key to building relationships: the ability to listen to others.
A couple of months ago at the hospital we had a very difficult case. A homeless man in his 60s came into the Emergency Room with a huge gaping infected hole in his leg. He was sick, in pain, and on top of it, had what we call around here “altered mental status.” It was very difficult to understand his speech or to follow anything he said. Most of the providers were left baffled at how to help this gentleman.
What made things more complicated was the medical need for a blood transfusion. The patient, in a very circuitous way, made it known that his religious affiliation meant that he did not want a blood transfusion. But he really needed one. So this caused tremendous provider distress. An ethics consult was called and I was asked to help understand the patient’s religious needs and desires better so that we as a clinical team could provide the best possible care respecting his needs and wishes.
And so for many weeks I met with the patient. At first I was incredibly frustrated that I had no idea what he was even saying. His words were slurred and his line of reasoning made absolutely no sense. It was like listening to a bunch of unrelated and bizarre words all strung together in one long, ongoing sentence.
And so I found myself sitting there for hours at a time, just listening. At first, I thought what I was doing was pointless and a waste of my time. But over time, I realized that all this patient really needed was for someone to listen to him. It soon became clear, after hours of listening, that this patient knew what was going on, knew what he wanted, and did have capacity to make decisions for himself. He just needed time, lots of time, for someone to hear him out. His story eventually became crystal clear.
And what at first was a frustrating case, became an incredible relationship with another human being. I will never forget one afternoon while sitting with him I briefly fell asleep. I woke up to him shouting, “Nick, Nick wake up!” Once I woke up and apologized for dozing off, he turned to his hospital tray and handed me his cup of coffee. “Here, you need this more than I do,” he said. I was so touched.
Over time, the providers stopped being distressed by this patient. He made his wishes known that he did not want a blood transfusion, so the medical team figured out a way to still help him heal without that intervention. And the patient eventually recovered enough to be discharged, and he was sent to a nursing home where he could be cared for around the clock.
All this human being needed was to be in relationship with someone else who could take the time to listen to him. And listening—something I thought at first was a pointless intervention—ended up being the only intervention that was really needed at all.