Ice Cream Grace

Our hospital’s administration has occasionally rolled out an ice cream cart as a way to offer encouragement to our staff. The chaplains get to be “in” on this adventure, serving as good-will agents and wayfinding guides for the cart and others who assist with ice cream distribution.

As you may know, hospitals are fairly controlled environments. For the most part, hospital staff try to be orderly (yes, pun on that word!), calm, and subdued. All of that goes out the window when a code blue is called, or, when the ice cream cart shows up on a unit.

One of the occasions for the morale boost in the form of frozen sugar was last fall when our electronic charting programs were changed, causing staff to change how we record patient information. The electronic medical record is not simply an electronic version of putting things on paper for future use, it also “drives” reminders about clinical protocols, safety warnings, and medical procedures. In other words, the “EMR” as we call it (electronic medical record) isn’t just a record, but a tool which guides the care and oversight of patients. When this tool changed, nurses, secretaries, physicians, surgeons, chaplains and everyone needed to be hypervigilant about making sure we provided the necessary care for our patients, and recorded it accurately. No wonder staff was on edge.

If you thought the British meme, “Keep Calm and Call the Chaplain,” would be appropriate, I would also confess that we were having our own moments of frustration with the EMR. Since I share an office with another chaplain in a closet on one of our ICUs, any expressions of frustration were overheard by nurses and family members in the hallway, and the patient across the way.

Back to ice cream, and the ice cream cart.

We had a road map for our cart’s travels on that day last fall, planned by one of the administrators (of course). I was the navigation assistant, and, because I work “on the floors,” (sees patients and interacts with nursing staff, versus the administrative folks) I offered to help make rounds on the units to invite people to ice cream.

I noticed that ice cream has an almost universal appeal. Who doesn’t like ice cream? Physicians left their computer charting to investigate the cart offering; nurses came and scooped up ice cream bars for buddies down the hall who were busy tending to patients; unit secretaries sent out pages to floor staff to notify them that the ice cream cart was there.

I tried to catch people’s eyes to tell them the news of the ice cream cart’s presence. A few people declined; some were on the phone. For the most part, people’s eyes lit up and they smiled. Some skeptical ones seemed to ask, “for real?!”

The cleaning staff seemed almost wary, like they rarely were invited to such open offers. Catching their eye, or drawing their attention to the free ice cream, was almost difficult at times, likely because they are usually passed by, I think. But I also suspect that the only other times people try to catch their attention is to ask them to do something, or to do more than what they already are doing. It was as if the open invitation really wasn’t open to them, and made me wonder what else they are closed off from engaging, or enjoying.

Back to ice cream. I usually prefer vanilla; it’s more useful and pragmatic. You can add stuff to vanilla that doesn’t work with other flavors. Of course, I have my favorites on other occasions, like black cherry and MooseTracks, along with some great gelato and other enticements.

Generally speaking, many people in the hospital are difficult to catch eyes with: physicians and mid-level practitioners thinking about their previous patient, or their next procedure or conversation; technicians concerned about setting up equipment properly at their next interaction; others who are just conserving energy for the day filled with difficult conversations, or just too aware of confidentiality to want to get into kind of conversation about patients. We tend to stick to our units, and engage those whom we know. We’re a big hospital; smaller hospitals might be easier for catching eyes.

Speaking of catching one’s eye, there’s a hymn that references God’s catching our eye, but I’m not finding it. I do know that the references in Psalm 123 speak to the attentiveness to one’s tasks and for mercy:
As the eyes of servants
look to the hand of their master,
as the eyes of a maid
to the hand of her mistress,
so our eyes look to the Lord our God,
until he has mercy upon us.

Perhaps offering ice cream, catching people’s eyes and inviting them to come to the cart, was an extension of mercy. Ice cream grace. That works.


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