Editor’s note: Making end-of-life decisions for another person can be among the most difficult, emotionally charged choices made by family members and medical personnel. In this series, Covenant hospital chaplains share their experiences of walking with others and how they have been impacted. For related stories, see Making Decisions in the Face of Death and Sacramental Tears.
MISSION, CA (May 3, 2016) – The young woman was distraught. She was 23 weeks pregnant, and the hospital medical team was about to perform a C-section. But the fetus wouldn’t be deemed viable until it was 24 weeks, so physicians would not perform life-saving measures.
“She was arguing with the doctor, ‘You mean if I was pregnant five more days you would do something!’” recalls Kristin Michealsen, a Covenant chaplain who works at the hospital and was called to the scene.
The mother was angry that she couldn’t change the minds of the physicians. “I was brought in not to explain it differently but to validate the family’s pain, their anger, their confusion, their grief,” Michealsen says.
She also had another role. In the minutes before the surgery, “I also was there to help the family begin to find a sense of meaning.”
Michealsen knew the situation was terribly difficult. “How do you make meaning in such a sterile environment like that?”
The physicians told the woman that the baby might live up to 45 minutes. “So I wanted to try to shift that conversation from the anger to say this is the time you are going to have with this child. What do you want this time to look like?”
The neonatologist told the mother, “I want you to be able to hold your baby and you want the child to be baptized so the chaplain is here to do the baptism.” Michealsen recalls, “It is a horrible time for everyone. The family is suffering. In just a matter of hours, their world is changing.”
So she helped them talk about their decisions. “We talked that we’re going to name the baby, we’re going to have a baptism, we’re going to hold the baby, we want other family members to come in to hold the baby. We want to take pictures. We want to do handprints. We want to do all of what normally would be done if the baby were born healthy. That shifted their whole focus to accepting that there wasn’t anything that could be done medically.”
And then things moved quickly. “I mean, I’m doing the baptism while they’re stitching up her stomach in the operating room,” Michealsen says.
She checked in with the family the next day as they were beginning to deal with how joyful anticipation had turned to sorrow. Knowing they would carry the pain and grief for years to come, she says she hoped that her presence with them that day had helped in some way.