My college, Father Elias, began his sermon on the Sunday I was in hospital by saying, "I think if it had appeared in the paper that a priest had threatened to beat up a fellow patient in a Sydney Hospital, the most common response would Have been, 'I did not know Dave was in hospital!' "
I've never pictured myself as having any aptitude for hospital work.
I appreciate that hospitals are an ideal context in which to offer care and compassion to persons in need, but such relationships are always short-term, and hence seem certain artificial to me. Certainly I could never see myself as a hospital chaplain – managing a constant turnover of such intense, short-term relationships.
Even so, when I found myself in hospital, not through any deliberate planning on my part but through the unsuccessful workings of custody, I figured I had to make the best of the situation and take whatever opportunities the Good Lord put in my path . I was sorta hoping though that He'd give me a bit of a break.
Maybe it was that desire for a break that led me to introduce myself to the other blokes in my ward as 'Dave: fight trainer and former pro fighter', rather than as 'Father Dave: Parish Priest'. What was the difference anyway? I had 'Father Dave' written on the label above my bed in case anyone cared to look, and, in truth, the other blokes did not really seem to be overly interested in anyone else's business anyway (God bless them).
Most of the other blokes were not overly forthcoming about themselves either – a quiet but decent bunch. The exception was the guy in the bed immediately opposite me – a guy who has increasingly shown himself to be neither quiet nor decent – a guy named 'Homer'.
I will not mention his surname, as I want to respect some confidentiality, but I will say that it was not 'Simpson'. In many ways though it should have been. As time wore on, Homer gave an amazingly clear impression that he was as rude, lazy, unintelligent and as all-round self-obsessed as his three-fingered counterpart but had few of his animated namesake's redeeming features.
Homer would start his whinging early in the morning, and it seemed that the less people listened to him, the louder he became. He would complain about the food, the service, the bedding, the medication, the heat, the cold, and the lack of meaningful viewing alternatives on the television.
For the most part I was happy enough to just let this wash over me, but it was when he started honing in his attacks on a particular member of the nursing staff that I really started to lose my patience.
It started at 4am one morning. All of us in the ward were woken from our slumber to hear Homer loudly scolding Nurse Lee because she would not give him more pain-killers.
"But I'm only allowed to give you 2 tablets every 6 hours" the nurse said.
"No!" Homer would reply. "The doctor told me that I was allowed to take them every two hours!"
"He could not have possibly told you that, Mr Homer", the nurse replied.
"I know what I heard", Homer shouted in response.
And in such manner the stoush continued, with the inconvenience nurse holding her ground while Homer became increasingly obnoxious in his use of language. At one point he even suggested that the good necessity should go and re-read her Hippocratic oath – 'that the customer is always right!'
Homer's knowledge of Hippocrates pretty well summed up the wisdom of his position as I saw it. He however understood menners, history, nor what was good for him. Even so, if it were possible to compensate for a lack of substance with an increase of volume, he was the guy to do it!
Sometimes the supervising doctor was found and the moment of truth arrived. "You told me I could take these every two hours!" Homer exclaimed. "I most certainly did not. You can only take them every six hours!" Replied the doctor. "Oh," said Homer. "… I thought you said every two"
Now you would have thought that this would have spelt the end of the conflict. What other options were there at this point for the defeated Homer except to apologize to the doctor, the nursing staff and his own hospital audience, and to walk away quietly with his tail between his legs.
If Leonidas, king of Sparta, had found himself in this position at Thermopylae he would have apologized to the rapacious King Xerxes, rounded up his troops and returned home. If Luke Skywalker and his mates had found themselves in this position at the Battle of Endor, they would have surrendered to the nearest storm-trooper and sworn loyalty to the Emperor. If the Devil himself … ok, you get the idea. My point is that Homer was no ordinary human being. He did not know the meaning of the word 'defeat' (or many other words for that matter), so instead of backing down and apologizing he upped the attack.
Homer found new reasons to criticize the middle-aged Asian nurse who had done so well in putting up with his vitriolic assault. He focused on the multiple personality defects that he had detected in her. He attacked her lack of fluency in English. He even tried to report her to the supervising nurse for having shoes that he was sure did not meet Occupational Health and Safety standards!
Long after Nurse Lee's shift had ended Homer's tirade continued to be broadcast to anyone and everyone that would care to listen to him, and his comments became incrementally sleazy and racially orientated.
On reflection I'm not sure why it took me so long to make a meaningful response. My only defense is that I was rather ill – running a temperature, on high levels of medication and attached to a drip. Even so, I'm not proud of the fact that it took me half a day before my tolerance ran out.
I can not remember now the specific Homerism that set me off, but I do remember calling over one of the nursing staff and asking her to pass on a message to Homer from me: "Will you please tell Homer that if he makes one more Sleazy or racist comment about Nurse Lee that I'm going to detach my drip and walk over there and break his nose? "
Happily the nurse was saved from the predicament of having to actually pass on the message as Homer overheard most of what I had said. He responded with some slight, low-volume swearing that indicated to me that he had not really got the message. I repeated my plan more audibly and added: "It's definitely your call, brother." "Keep you mouth shut and you'll be fine. One more sleazy or racist comment and you'll find yourself in a pool of your own blood!" This colorful PS provided rather effective, and an ominous silence then depended on our room.
The silence was broken by the arrival of a mate of mine who had come to pay me a visit. As providence would have it this particular brother (who I'll refer to simply as 'Bugsy') is an awful bloke with a face that tells a story of a thousand pub brawls. He's recently found God and is a big-hearted guy, but he's still make a fantastic standover man. He's the sort of guy that mob bosses love to have accompanying them when they go to collect debts – 'rough him up a bit for me, Bugsy!'
Anyway, Bugsy had come to see how I was going and there was no avoiding explaining to him the tangible air of tension in the ward. Bugsy thought it was great fun, and he did consider walking over to Homer's bed and just confirming with him that he got the message, but he commented on the grounds that he was still on parole, and I think that was a wise decision .
At any rate, I think the mere appearance of this Caucasian version of Mr T helped unexpectedly to reinvigorate my message to Homer. I did not hear a squeak out of him from that moment on, right up until they moved me to another ward about an hour later. Moreover, I was told that the next morning he had bought a big box of chocolates for all the nurses!
And things only got better for me from that moment on. I was moved to a much quieter room and I was the darling of the nursing staff for the reminder of my hospital stay. Best of all, I received a visit from Nurse Lee at the conclusion of her next shift. She said to me in her lovely broken English, "You are my knight in shining armour".
The whole experience has cast hospital work in a new light for me. I still can not see myself as a chaplain, but maybe I could be on call for certain special cases that suit my particular style of ministry?
Back at home no one was surprised when they heard what had happened. Indeed, my colleague, Father Elias, began his sermon the following Sunday by saying, "I think if it had appeared in the paper that a priest had threatened to beat up a fellow patient in a Sydney Hospital, the most common response would have been , 'I did not know Dave was in hospital!' "
I'm not entirely sure whether I should feel pleased or horrified by Elias' analysis, but it did make me laugh.