9 Fragile treasures

A way to see the people in chaos

One night I responded to a call to the Emergency Department for what we call a “fetal demise”. This means that a baby has died before birth. When we respond, we have a conversation with the mother about how she wants to handle the remains of her baby, particularly if the pregnancy is less than 20 weeks.[1]

These are difficult times for everyone. For the mother, for the family, and also for the staff. Including the chaplain.

This night, I talked to the patient’s nurse, discovered who was in the room, understood some of the patient’s state of mind. I walked into the hospital room. As far as I knew, the patient had lost a baby. I began to talk to her as if that was true. She asked me to leave because she didn’t want the negativity. She asked for more tests. She was right.

The baby was still alive.

I thought about that story while listening to Donald Miller talk with two brothers who own a restaurant in Seattle.[2]

The restaurant is known for amazing customer service. Trying to explain why they are so good, one of the brothers said, “Our customers walk in the door with a fragile treasure and ask us to take care of it. They want to know that it is safe to let us hold it.”

The “fragile treasures” they described were special events: a first date, or a last meal with a dying parent, or another “the only time this will happen” opportunity. They want to make sure that this moment, this dining experience, is treated carefully and thoughtfully and well.

As I was running and listening to their conversation, I thought about what happened in the hospital room that night. Waiting for me in the ER wasn’t a patient with a problem that needed a solution. There was a mom who was being told by her body that her child was at risk. I walked into the room, not thinking about the fragile treasure of her child and her dreams and her fears. I was focused on the conversations I’m compelled by law to have. I was so caught up in my own fears of making a mistake, that I made a mistake.

What I understood too late that night, what I know better now, is that when I walk into a room, I have the opportunity to start at a person’s point of fear and uncertainty about the fragile treasure they brought with them to the hospital.

Even more than people going to a restaurant, the people who come to our hospitals are here with fragile treasures. They hope that this trip to the ER will make possible a future together, even as they fear it won’t. They hope that the IV will add enough life to the veins so that the walk up the aisle at the wedding won’t be lonely, that the Christmas tree will have people around it, that next year might happen in Jerusalem. They are looking at the swirl of staff in the ER room as life-threatening chaos that will crush their hopes, not knowing that all those people are offering the one bit of diagnostic and treatment hope there is.

We talk about customer service a bit in hospitals. And it’s acceptable language. But I want to start thinking about the fragile treasure in the heart of the mother, the spouse, the child. When I see a wife sitting next to her husband of 60 years, I want to remember the fragile treasure she is clinging to more than the interaction I will have to record in my charting.

My spiritual mentor talked about treasure–about looking for it, and finding it, and storing it up in heaven. He was known for seeing into hearts, into the fears and hopes that people had. When he debated rules, it was with the rule-enforcers, not with the ordinary people who wanted life.

That makes sense to me. I hope I remember it the next time I’ve heard a family receive a doctor’s diagnosis. I’ll start my treatment with the heart holding the fragile treasure.


  1. See Chapter 26 for more details about how to help in a fetal demise.
  2. Mark and Brian Canlis, interviewed by Donald Miller. http://buildingastorybrand.com/episode-8/. Accessed 2018.01.18.

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Fragile treasures Copyright © 2018 by Jon Charles Swanson. All Rights Reserved.

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