From pastor to patient

First published on: 12th January 2022

When I was a curate in the people's republic of South Yorkshire, before the days of data protection and safeguarding, a local member of the deanery was awarded an OBE for services to patients.

Each week he went through all the admission sheets for the Doncaster Royal Infirmary and sorted the names into the ecclesiastical parishes which each individual admitted came from and wrote to the parish priest.

In my parish, the vicar coordinated a weekly hospital visit usually on the afternoon of the midweek Eucharist and staff meeting.

A car full of us, there were four on the team, would drive to the hospital and fan out across the wards each armed with a list of names.

One particular Wednesday I called by the bedside of an elderly miner, injured in an accident at Hatfield Main Colliery. Breathing heavily through advanced pneumoconiosis. I introduced myself but he was singularly unimpressed by this callow youth, I was 24 years old, with long hair, denims and a dog collar.

He was too ill to show me the door but made it clear that he had no truck with religion, do gooders or the church in general.

So I moved on to the next person on my list leaving only the echo of a silent blessing.

A couple of weeks later there was a tentative knock on my door. I had never met the person before but he introduced himself as the son of the man I had visited in hospital.

His father had died and had asked the son to seek me out in order to ask me to take his funeral. Of course my response was to agree and we settled down to discuss dates and the order of the service.

I was in hospital and you visited me!

When did we see You a stranger and take You in, or naked and clothe You?  When did we see You sick or in prison and visit You?’ And the King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of Mine, you did for Me.’…

Over the years since my curacy I have visited many parishioners in hospital and the nature and style of those visits followed a pattern. I would check with the hospital, I would arrange a time, I would visit, catch up on home and parish and I would say a short prayer or blessing.

In my current role at one point I had both churchwardens in hospital, one in Durham and one in Ward Five of the Freeman Hospital in Newcastle - I was a regular visitor to both.

And then ironically I found myself as a patient in Ward Five.

From pastor to patient.

From surgery I was cared for in the high dependency unit for two days. Before being admitted to Ward Five.

My first challenge was to do with names and titles. As a pastor I was the Revd Canon Geoff Smith. But since my remarriage and an agreement with my new wife who wished to retain her maiden name, we became the Purcell Smiths.

In hospital, as a patient, however, I was ‘bed three’ and variously Geoff Purcell, Geoff Smith, Purcell Smith, but mainly Geoff, I was very aware of the risks of being mistaken for someone else, and every procedure was preceded by the question, ‘date of birth?’.

I recalled the story of a doctor making a request on behalf of a patient: ‘Wart on middle finger, please remove’, for the patient to wake to find his whole middle finger missing.

Also, rather than normally being focused on the one parishioner that I was visiting I was now one of six quite poorly men in the ward. In my ward, most of the men were local, Newcastle United supporters and spoke with 'Geordie' accents. So as we settled into our common existence with most conversations being conducted behind curtains and therefore open for all to eavesdrop an uneasy sense of familiarity settled on the ward and between the six of us.

My immediate neighbour in bed two was scandalised when he was handed a pair of hospital slipper socks in red and white. He demanded black and white, the colours of Newcastle United.

My wife's visiting was subject to Covid restrictions, one named visitor for one hour, but I was visited by members of the chaplaincy team and because of some vivid dreams, stressful nights and weird fantasies I requested and was visited by the psych team from the hospital.

As a result of two weeks restrictions because of a leaking pancreas I was put on 'nil by mouth' where I experienced significant weight loss together with what Ivan Illich described as 'iatrogenic' symptoms including never before experienced migraine-type headaches.

My wife observed that I was being institutionalised and one of my medical team observed on his morning round, ‘you've been here too long, this is not doing you any good’. I suspect that it was at this point that efforts were made to ensure that I was discharged.

Altogether I was in hospital for a month following a procedure called pancreaticoduodenectomy or ‘Whipple Procedure’ (completely unrelated to the Church Furnishers of that name).

As a pastor I seek to preach and proclaim the concept of an incarnational faith. As St John's Gospel tells us: 'The word became flesh and dwelt amongst us'. Whilst the notion of incarnation speaks of lofty ideals, at the end of the day, well, flesh is flesh.

As a patient I had to get used to the idea of being flesh.

Blood tests, cannulas fitted and removed, PICC lines, fitted and removed in one case accidentally, injections, so many injections My body was a specimen which had to be controlled and managed to allow to heal after some eight hours of surgery.

Whilst I felt that that my 'flesh' was treated with respect it was still treated with an uneasy familiarity during observations, checks for bed sores and whilst mopping up vomit and other accidents 'of the flesh'.

But whilst I was a patient I was still a priest, a pastor and during an email conversation with a parishioner I discovered that Radio Three was broadcasting the Canonical Hours and so I decided that, silently and under the cover of darkness, I would exercise as best as I might a ministry of prayer in my situation and for those I shared my situation with and for those who cared for us.

Canonical Hours in Ward 5

Matins, the first hour

Sung as the hospital day

Commences as the night shift

Switch on Ward lights

At 6am observations begin

Blood Pressure, temperatures

Heart rate. Good Morning, Good Morning

An echo of the Beatles

Ave Maria, gratia plena, benedicta tu in mulieribus et benedictus fructus ventris tui Jesus


Lauds, celebrates the new day

Between each burst of activity

Respite follows, the common mood

Follows the common good, resting

Before a change of shift, fresh eyes

Are raised, beds made, bed baths

Or showers for the ambulant

My leaking pancreas is flushed to dry

Ave Maria, gratia plena, benedicta tu in mulieribus et benedictus fructus ventris tui Jesus


As sun arches into the hospital

Windows, Prime, is intoned

Food containers opened

Breakfast served, soft foods for

Delicate stomachs, cereals

Or porridge brought to bedsides

Give us our daily bread, forgive our

Sins, Hail Mary, full of Grace

Ave Maria, gratia plena, benedicta tu in mulieribus et benedictus fructus ventris tui Jesus


Terce takes us through the hours

Dr’s rounds as prognoses

Are shared, further diagnoses written

On the computerised adding machines

From bedside to bedside patients

Wondering is this the day I hear

That wonderful word of solemn blessing it is time for you to think of home?

Ave Maria, gratia plena, benedicta tu in mulieribus et benedictus fructus ventris tui Jesus


Sext marks the day shift halfway

In these hours of never ending

Days minds turn to gratitude for physical

Recovery the stress of a surgeon’s knife

The wounds will heal, yesterday’s pain

Become tomorrow’s blessing

Grandma’s advice, don’t scratch the scabs just let them heal be strong

Ave Maria, gratia plena, benedicta tu in mulieribus et benedictus fructus ventris tui Jesus


None marks that mid-afternoon pause before observations then lunch

The menu’s chosen just a day before

May be less appetising as covers

Are lifted but a switch from nil

By mouth to pasta with fish is a blessing

Give us this day our daily bread and fishes let miracles occur generosity feed through

Ave Maria, gratia plena, benedicta tu in mulieribus et benedictus fructus ventris tui Jesus


Vespers evening draws in again

I simply failed to notice the shift

In time from summer to winter my

iPhone had it covered as if by magic

An evening meal is served, bloods fine

Medicine’s prescribed, pain controlled

Anticipate the solemn watch ethereal

Music lifts our spirits to the divine

Ave Maria, gratia plena, benedicta tu in mulieribus et benedictus fructus ventris tui Jesus


At compline the hours draw close

Ward Five gathers for handover

Day shift to night, a night of silent watches, of unsteady steps, relieving

Oneself, walking like a man wired for sound, machines beeping as you walk

Under the cautious watch of the night shift

You return to the day’s challenges

Continued healing a blessing claimed

Ave Maria, gratia plena, benedicta tu in mulieribus et benedictus fructus ventris tui Jesus

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