Anton Boisen, one of the founders of Clinical Pastoral Education, coined the phrase “living human document.” It means that the patient in the bed, and/or the grieving family, has a history, a present and a future. They are living, breathing stories.

Chaplains, as well, are living, human documents; and, away from the patient, we reflect on our own issues and hotspots that flare up during visitations.

You don’t have to go to a book or a manual to find out about them. They’re right in front of you, either in the mirror or in the bed or hallway.

Patients are more–so much more–than their condition or disease. If they feel well enough, they’re usually open to sharing more than what ails them.

They have myriad life experiences, disappointments, joys, foibles, humor and fears. Just like the rest of us.

I saw someone this week who told me so much more about himself than his upcoming surgery. He gave me this gift both in words, and in signals. (A humorous encounter came when the doctor asked him a question he clearly didn’t want to answer; and he said to me: “Did you hear anything?” That told me he isn’t comfortable confessing, even to a doctor, his vices.)

Often there are clear connections between a patient’s lifestyle and what’s going on with their bodies. If a diabetic, for instance, ignores his diet for too long, he will likely end up in the hospital.

Sometimes it’s not so obvious; a patient experiencing months of stress, who otherwise takes good care of herself, enters the ER with a migraine. She has never had migraines before.

Then sometimes, tragically, these living documents present themselves to us a little too late. Too late for their stories to be read, at least by us.

The stories, like all of our stories, are precious. The Hippocratic Oath guides me in this: “First, do no harm.”


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