What I Learned in the ER

by | Mar 3, 2023 | Formation, Reflections

How many times have you been in an Emergency Room? No matter how many times, you still might say it was too many!

Sometimes it may have been accompanying a family member anxiously awaiting treatment. At other times, you may have been in pain, with your body longing for relief.

In this Vincentian Mindwalk let me share what I learned about the difference between hearing sounds and listening in an ER.

A frequent flier experience

I often joke about having achieved frequent flier status at a local hospital.

I arrived at the ER about 9:30 PM.  The large waiting room held at least 25 other people and a TV blaring a mindless program.

 I could not help “hearing” the sounds of another frequent flier.

I suspect she was about 35 years old. She was standing at the COVID-era plastic window separating intake staff and patients.  Shouting at the topic of her lungs, she detailed her woes about the service she was not getting. For some reason, possibly to distract myself, I tried to “listen” to her rather than just be annoyed by the sounds of her shouting.

In what I think was a moment of grace, I became aware that I did not know her “back story.” I tried to listen with the ears of someone who loved her… her mother or even God. I began to imagine the “baggage” she carried inside her wounded heart. She probably needed much greater healing than any ER could give her short term. I became aware of listening to the cries of the poor!

Waiting for a bed

Finally, I was told I would be admitted as soon as they found a bed. I was lucky. It turned out to be only a three-hour wait!

From a gurney in an inner cubicle of the ER, I could see a parade of people in various uniforms and patients on the occasional gurney being wheeled by.

To distract myself from focusing on myself and my mounting frustration, I tried to imagine the back story of each of these persons. Just thinking about the possibilities helped me realize how little I knew about them and their concerns,

Then in my mind’s eye, I transported myself to a hospital in Ukraine that had just been bombed. I said a very quick thank you that I was safe in this ER.

The difference between hearing and listening

There is a difference between hearing sounds and understanding their meaning.

Hearing is the simple physiological act of hearing sounds. 

Listening means to pay attention to sound; to hear something with thoughtful attention, and to give consideration to its meaning.

(Some may remember an earlier post. “Are we as Church Hard of Hearing… or “Hard of Listening?)

Now, I learned how “listening” to the hospital sounds changed the focus of my experience of this recent visit.

Lessons from listening

For starters… I was reminded not to judge people and appreciate how blessed I was to have access to this care.

I began to hear the sounds with God’s ears. What a difference! 

I thought of Pope Francis’ description of wisdomHe writes wisdom is “to see the world, to see situations, circumstances, problems, everything through God’s eyes.”

I could give many more anecdotes of interaction with patients and staff.  The thread running through them would be the realization that “listening” was much more than “hearing” … and judging. 

I feel blessed with this unplanned visit!

Learning to Listen

Try to “listen” for the backstory of at least one conversation today. Don’t just “hear” and react.

P.S. A 4-minute video walks through the lobby and corridors of the Cleveland Clinic Hospital. Closed caption headlines reveal people’s worries, worries evident to a listening person… or God.

Originally posted on Vincentian Mindwalk



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