This week has culminated two months of tragedy at our medical center. This was another death, and this one was totally senseless. It followed the unexpected death of Senior Chief Pam Branum while she was deployed on the USNS Comfort doing a humanitarian mission in the Caribbean Sea. The Comfort was in Panama when she died. Her death shook our community. She was loved and respected and her death was unsettling. Back in April we had lost Ensign Chris Gallagher in a motorcycle crash in Oceanview. Chris was a fourth year medical student and would have graduated about three weeks after he died. He was a incredibly sharp and dedicated medical student and would have made a fine physician. As with Senior Chief he was well liked and respected. I knew both of them. I had seen Chris the day before his death in ICU rounds.
This week we lost Hospitalman Third Class Christopher Bailey. Today in a chapel crowed well beyond it’s maximum capacity we remembered Chris. It was a moving and emotional service in which his shipmates, friends and even his mother spoke, I was especially touched by her words about Chris and our healing community. Chris was a passionate young sailor and dedicated Christian. He and a friend were looking at his car and discussing their faith when three men came to rob them. As the men left following the robbery one fired a shot into Chris’s car. He was hit in the back of the head and died yesterday at Norfolk General. He donated his organs and seven were used in transplants. In death he gave live to seven people. Chris was a Psychiatric Technician. He worked on our inpatient Psychiatry wards and occasionally in the clinic. He was loved by those who worked with him. I work on our SPRINT team which is an interdisciplinary team which goes out to assist in traumatic situations. As part of that team I work with a lot of really great Psychiatrists, Psychologists, Psychiatric Nurses and Technicians, military and civilian. Unlike Chris Gallagher and Pam Branum I had only met Chris in passing on duty one evening. So I didn’t know him like the other two, thus this was different than the others for me.
The death of Pan Branum and Chris Gallagher saddened me because I knew them and liked them. Chris Bailey’s death angered me because it was so senseless. Chris was killed for 5 dollars and truthfully, and this may seem un-Christian and anti-life I hope the bloody sonofabitch who did this is hunted down and killed. That asshole snuffed out the life of a good kid and it really pisses me off. I’m sure this reaction goes back to my youth because back in 1979 I was held up a gunpoint by two men with Judy, who was and her parents in the parking lot of Arroyo’s Café in Stockton California, the original home of the drive-by-shooting. This was back in the days that Arroyo’s was on South center Street. Having a gun to your head when you have no place to run sitting in the back seat of a car puts your life in perspective real quick. When I heard about Chris and what happened to him I imagined what would have happened to me had the robber pulled the trigger on me. Anyway I am upset about this because I am sick and tired of seeing young people die senseless and needless deaths. Additionally it angers me because it has hurt my friends on my team. They are hurting; they are grieving and still trying to care for a nearly full inpatient psychiatric unit. I hate to see my friends hurting. I try to be there for them but that will not take away the hurt, pain and loss that they have experienced. They walk tonight in the valley of the shadow of death.
Theologically and personally I wrestle with this. I have a hard time finding any redeeming purpose or meaning in such a death. Chris was killed by a criminal gang of thugs for no reason. I have a hard time saying “well it’s God’s will” or “God works everything for the good.” God may have a plan and somehow some way there may be something good that comes from this, but I cannot see it right now. I’m sure that I am not alone in the way that I feel. I can only imagine the sense of loss, grief and anger of the people that I work with who knew and loved Chris. My stuff I can put a finger on, being held up at gunpoint thirty years ago, dealing with huge amounts traumatic death in ERs and ICUs as a chaplain and most of all the PTSD that I came home with as a gift from Iraq.
I stayed in the background of this event helping a bit with seating people, hanging out in back to make sure people were okay and after the service looking after my friends Andy and Casey from the SPRINT team. Casey and I had done a mission at Camp LeJeune a few months back during a particularly gruesome suicide which came into the hospital ER. Casey transfers soon but in the mean time we have to get together for a beer some evening or take in a ball game.
The only thing that I can say that may be halfway pastoral at this point is to echo German theologian and martyr Dietrich Bonheoffer who said:
“Nothing can make up for the absence of someone we love. And it would be wrong to try to find a substitute. We must simply hold out and see it through. That sounds very hard at first, but at the same time, it is a great consolation, for the gap — as long as it remains unfilled — preserves the bond between us. It is nonsense to say that God fills the gap: God does not fill it, but on the contrary, keeps it empty, and so helps us to keep alive our former communion with each other, even at the cost of pain.”
I know that all of Chris’s friends, as well as those of Chris Gallagher and Pan Branum will understand this. There is nothing that can replace them and it is foolish to try to substitute another person, relationship or activity for them. There is a hole in our hearts and in the collective soul of Portsmouth Naval Medical Center. This place of healing is hurting and I pray that somehow these things will stop happening.
May God give rest to the soul of Christopher Bailey and all those who sleep in Christ; may his soul, the souls of Chris Gallagher and Pam Branum and all the departed rest in peace and all who grieve for them know the peace of God.
Pray for me a sinner, Steve+