I found myself yesterday for over 12 hours in the emergency room at the world-renowned MD Anderson Cancer Hospital with my mom who was diagnosed with cancer last spring. Because of the Christmas holiday season, the hospital was at 103 percent capacity. Doctors were not following the regular admitting process after seeing their patients. Instead, they were routing patients through the emergency center with the idea that the patient would receive faster service. This created a huge backlog of very ill people in a small, concentrated area for many hours.
Mom and I settled in for the long stay in the back area of the waiting room as we witnessed patient after patient with family members or friends in tow to endure the hours together with the goal of finding at least some momentary relief from the pain and advance of their cancer. A giant black man sitting in a wheelchair soon flanked me to my immediate right. He appeared to be his 70’s, accompanied by his two buddies who had delivered him to the emergency room. To our left was an extremely ill woman whose body was little more than a skeleton with skin. She was lying on a hospital gurney wheeled against the wall to wait in agony with her vomit bag resting on her caved chest. Across the isle from us were more cancer patients, all waiting, hoping for their number to come up soon in the computer in order to receive their treatment.
It was hard to ignore the multiple conversations in such a tight space. My ear tuned into the conversation to my right between this big black man and his friends. While I was entertained by much of what was said about how much he could or could not fill his bucket on a daily basis, I gathered the wheelchair bound man had kidney issues caused by his cancer. I listened to the men talk about the topic for some time, and I tried to find humor in the subject because the rest of the room was over-shadowed with such pain and, for a few, imminent death.
I found it difficult not to stare or engage with my eyes but this man to my right was such a large person with a deep, gentle voice, I felt wooed by the conversation. After a while, the triage nurse called this man’s name, Roy. His friend pushed his wheelchair to the door of the triage room, passing him off to the nurse. The friend came back and sat in his chair with the other man next to him. After a few minutes, a hospital advocate walked over to our area and began to explain that Roy was experiencing severe kidney failure and asked the men if one of them had planned to stay with him during his time in the ER. They both looked at her surprised and each one said “no” that they had things to do and would be leaving him alone. The advocate sternly expressed to them that Roy seemed to be scared to be left alone but her words failed to change the friend’s decisions to leave Roy alone. I then began to feel a tug in my heart toward this lone, ill man.
I will confess that I did not want to get involved. I am like most in that I don’t go around looking for opportunities to interact with the marginalized and oppressed. I don’t want to experience their shame, get my hands dirty or become entangled in the life of one of these needy people because doing so may cost me some inconvenience or worse, my reputation. I read a book several years ago that made a huge impact on my life in how I viewed people who are different than me. The title of the book is The Same Kind of Different As Me. It’s a true story of how a high society art dealer with my same view of keeping a safe distance from the marginalized actually engaged directly with a dangerous homeless drifter and through his months of involvement realized that the two of them were the same kind with little difference between them. We are all the same in the eyes of Jesus. I thought intently about this as I watched Roy’s buddies walk out of the hospital leaving him alone in his fear. I picked up my phone to send a text to my husband, Bill, to tell him that I was in the middle of a “same kind of different as me” moment. Something very unusual happened as I typed the word different, the auto-fill on my phone delivered the text with the word “sufferance”. I was stunned as I glared at the sent text on phone screen – same kind of sufferance as me. My thoughts began to stir. Sufferance is by definition, “patient endurance of pain or distress without interference”.
Jesus calls us to be like him. He calls us to a life that shares in sufferance. For many yesterday at MD Anderson, sufferance was through cancer but for me, sufferance was in entering into the life of a needy man, to share in his fear and loneliness. I began to process more deeply the same kind of sufferance that so many in the room around me were baring. Myself, a cancer survivor, I can identify a little with some of their sufferance. However, I didn’t loose my hair like my mom, or my body didn’t shrivel up on a gurney, or I wasn’t abandoned at the hospital by my friends in the emergency room like Roy to fight the cancer fear alone. I’m extremely grateful that I did not have to endure these types of suffering during my cancer journey.
For six hours, in my safe chair against the wall, I continued to ponder the word sufferance. I decided to walk across the room from where I sat to check on my mom’s schedule at the nurse’s desk. The triage nurse had parked Roy in his wheelchair in front of the admitting desk. He sat patiently holding his wooden cane across his island-sized lap. My back was turned away from him when I heard him ask the nurse if he could get a cookie from the volunteer snack cart. It was at that split second that I had to decide if I was going to participate in the same kind of sufferance of Christ or continue to maintain my secure distance filled with worry of loss of reputation. I turned around to fix my gaze on Roy and bent over with my face in his face. His big, soulful eyes filled with tears as I asked him if he had eaten today to which he answered, “no ma’am”.
I patted his knee and told him I would return with a hot meal and to save the cookies for dessert. Handing the cafeteria cashier ten bucks for a stranger’s meal was much easier than engaging with this poor, needy man. I placed his meal on a table near where my mom and I were sitting. I then walked across the floor for Roy. Wrapping my fingers around the handles of Roy’s wheelchair, I took a prayerful breath to surrender my reputation and began the short journey of sufferance across the waiting room. I began identifying with Roy, a poor, marginalized, man in need of a friend. I carried the weight of his burden as I rolled him to the other side of the room and in doing so, I realized that through the sufferance of Christ, Roy is the same kind of different as me.