One of the duties of being a parish priest in my present parish, and the last, was to take a turn with the hospital `bleep` for night calls to give the regular chaplain a break. Well that`s the simple explanation of what we do except that towards the end of my time in Gateshead the shortage of priests meant there was no longer a curate in the deanery who had the job of hospital chaplain and so a permanent deacon was employed which meant that when a priest`s turn for the bleep came he was on call 24 hours a day for that week. As things turned out we took turns every six or so weeks. This was sometimes difficult to combine with my work in Newcastle on the diocesan tribunal where I would sometimes sit down to interview a petitioner or possibly angry respondent only to get a call to go to the hospital. However I moved across the Tyne and into the larger set-up of Newcastle. While there are three major hospitals to cover we are fortunate in that there is a full-time priest chaplain and with there being more parishes, the turn only comes around every six months. We are only on duty from 8pm-8am although we also do all-day Tuesday and Wednesdays to give the hard-working chaplain a break.
This week I have the bleep. It has been a busy week so far. Last night it went off at 1.15 am (as it had two nights previously). I was so glad that we haven`t had the snow the other parts of the country have had as that would make things more difficult. Off I went to an intensive care ward not knowing what exactly I would find. There was a young man of about 20 years of age with his parents by the bed-side. He was dying of cancer and was not expected to survive until morning. The family are from about 30 miles from the hospital. So I gave absolution and the plenary indulgence for the moment of death and did the anointings of the sacrament of the sick. The whole thing was intensely moving.
I came back on duty at 8pm tonight and as the pips for the 8 o`clock news went on the radio, the bleep went off again. This time it was for the delivery unit of the maternity ward. When I got there I found a twenty-two week baby who had died in the womb. I once had been called out to baptise a baby of that age. He was taken out of the fridge in a little tray made to look like a bed, a tiny but perfectly-formed child. Again this was a very moving experience. The parents weren`t there but I said prayers and blessed him. I also said a prayer for those who think it is ok to tear apart such a child in the womb that their eyes may one day be opened.
So not long until Sunday before I hand over the bleep. While these last two experiences have been powerful, I`m hoping I get a full-night`s sleep tonight!