On Liberation

Friday, December 16, 2022

Each year, one of the last exercises that BSVM staff facilitates is to ask our Ministry Volunteers to reflect on an aspect of their journey of learning and growth, and to share it in our Closing Service. Below, you can read the Closing Reflection from Chris Dethlefs (BSVM ’18-’19) as he recalls the lessons he learned from his time in Richmond, VA. Even with the complexity he continued to wrestle with at the end of the year, he shares about the gifts he received from the relationships he built over his time at Richmond Community Hospital, and the hope of liberation that they represented. 

Closing Reflection: On Liberation
By Chris Dethlefs, BSVM 2018-2019
A graduate of the University of Notre Dame

How can I offer liberation to someone consigned to living in a small hospital room for potentially months on end? This was one of the main challenges I faced as I entered the role of Liaison Volunteer on the inpatient floor at Richmond Community Hospital. The unit is home to a mix of short term patients experiencing acute illnesses and a group of “extended-stay,” subacute patients awaiting guardianship, placement at other rehabilitation or assisted living facilities, or completion of lengthy courses of antibiotics.

The diversity of our long-term patients was remarkable– middle aged men recovering from strokes, elderly patients with dementia and no legal guardian, long-term wound care patients, and younger individuals fighting infections from past IV substance abuse. How could I serve them? I couldn’t get their Medicaid approved any faster. I couldn’t find a guardian for our older patients. I was powerless to directly tackle the enormous list of stressors awaiting some of our patients upon discharge. I couldn’t make their infections disappear more quickly or their wounds heal faster. My job, it seemed, was to creatively wait with them. And in this waiting, to find some semblance of freedom in a highly restricted condition.

It took many visits to gradually build the trust and sensitivity with these individuals that was necessary for authentic, supportive relationship. I learned quickly that the way patients perceived their hospitalization varied just as widely as their health circumstances. Some embraced the time as an opportunity for holistic healing, hopeful for the future. Many longed to return home. A few voiced that the isolation and monotony of extended hospitalization was worse even than their previous experiences of incarceration. Some were nearly voiceless, and the nature of their experience remained largely a mystery to me. My work required slowly learning their stories, restoring context to the room numbers on our census sheet. It required meeting people where they were and gradually discerning how my presence could be life-giving to them.

For “Matt” and “Ron” this meant frequent walks outside, to taste the fresh air and feel the sunshine. For “Harvey” it meant escaping his abandoned and isolated condition into the recesses of his memory, regaling me with stories of his youth and his travels in the army. For “Lauren,” it meant having someone there to share openly about her deepest struggles and hurts. For “James” and “Connor” it became dozens of games of Rummy. For “Tom” it meant reading aloud from books that captivated his imagination. Some patients remained largely inaccessible to me, whether due to cognitive impairment or preferred solitude. But even in their cases, offering consistent availability opened up space for moments of real connection, and perhaps restoration.

The experience of seeing an extended-stay patient leave our facility was bittersweet. I was always excited to see them move on, hopefully to greater freedom and continued healing. But it also meant the departure of a close friend – someone who had become more than a patient to be cured.

My year was about immersing myself in the complexity of people’s lives, during a time of great vulnerability, dependence, and restriction. In coming to know these patients intimately, and in seeking some kind of liberation with them, I also came to know myself more deeply than ever before. I saw my capacity for gentleness and judgment, for patience and intolerance. I plumbed the depths of depression and emptiness, and I was surprised by joy.

The opportunity to encounter the astounding range of human experience in a special way this year has reassured me that mine is one of many stories – each unique and shaped by a million spirits outside of ourselves. It has taught me the importance of context, the capacity for hope in the darkest night, and the restorative power of authentic relationship. It has suggested the possibility of liberation – a moment of laughter, a ray of sunshine, a story heard and passed on, an unlikely friendship born. I have admittedly emerged from this year of service more confused about this world, its people, its suffering, and my place amidst all of it, than ever before. But on a winding road this experience has pointed me towards true north. That is to patiently pursue justice, to trust the difficult thing, to err on the side of compassionate self-offering, and to hope for liberation.

Chris plays Bingo with patients at RCH

Chris takes a walk with a patient at RCH