Fathom Mag

"Hesed" in Scrubs

My doctors—my contractually obligated friends in scrubs—didn’t choose me initially; however, they have chosen me every day since.

Published on:
November 2, 2021
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5 min.
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I was sitting in a tucked-away corner of Millennium Park, surrounded by greenery that hid the waves of tourists searching for Cloudgate. From my lush hideaway, my eyes traveled the pages of Receiving the Gift of Friendship: Profound Disability, Theological Anthropology, and Ethics. I glossed over each word, tracing the author’s argument from one page to another. But when my gaze fell on one unsuspecting paragraph tears flooded my eyes. I read and reread the words:

Many people with intellectual disabilities are, for most of their lives, surrounded by family or professional caregivers and support workers. This means that relationships in their lives are either a matter of natural necessity or—as in the case of professionals —of contractual obligation . . . Both of these kinds of relationships are very important for the disabled person, but neither can establish the one crucial good that disabled people long for: being chosen as a friend. 

I live with a physically disabling syndrome and his words succinctly captured my experiences. 

My Unexpected Friends 

Four days after my returning flight landed in Dallas, I found myself sleeping in yet another bed that was not my own. This time, instead of lounging in a hotel enjoying a much-needed vacation in Chicagoland, I was once again in a hospital bed. I had as a companion the words by Hans Reinders bringing a comforting pain. His description was haunting and dreadful but also relatable and unfortunately familiar. Occasionally I’d hear from my companions outside the walls of UT Southwestern Medical Center, yet I felt very little closeness to them. There was a chasm between us, a separation caused not by mortar or miles but by intimate presence. It’s hard to describe this kind of distance, yet recurrent or long-term hospital patients know it all too well.

In my twenty-six years with CLOVES Syndrome, a progressive rare disease, I’ve learned that most companions will remain committed to our friendship for a limited period of time. From my experience, companions typically journey with me for either three months of continuous health complications or three isolated hospitalizations. Of course, this conclusion is not true of all my friends nor an exact science. Rather, it’s a pattern, an unfortunate reality, that I’ve had to accept time and time again. Reinders identified the pattern: With some exceptions, I am not typically chosen as a friend for the long haul. 

My doctors—my contractually obligated friends in scrubs—didn’t choose me initially; however, they have chosen me every day since.

But while his words comfort me by naming a reality and a longing in my life, I don’t completely agree with the whole picture he paints. My doctors—my contractually obligated friends in scrubs—didn’t choose me initially; however, they have chosen me every day since. 

Hesed in Scrubs 

Those who study Hebrew know that it’s difficult to find a singular gloss for ḥesed. No affectionate noun like “lovingkindness,” “steadfast love,” or “devotion” can fully capture what it means to show ḥesed. The parameters of ḥesed may even be easier to experience than to define. I find descriptions of this active noun in my memories. 

I hear ḥesed as I replay my doctors’ voices, each word spoken with an empathetic kindness that expresses their concern for me. I feel it in their warm hands on my back as they grieve and pray with me, asking God to help me look forward with hope. I smell it in the ultrasound gel slathered on my skin as my doctor uses a sonogram to place another IV in my leg. This doctor was already off work, yet he stood by my bedside and guided a catheter into my vein because he knew that’s what he could do to help me. I see it written on each doctor’s face as they enter into my pain time after time because that’s not just what they’re supposed to do, it’s what they want to do. 

In the Old Testament, covenant (bĕrît) and ḥesed are often intertwined. Covenants between two parties establish a relationship that secures the continual expression of ḥesed. The covenant, the bĕrît, assures the steadfastness that we long for in relationships. This connection between a covenant and ḥesed isn’t just conceptual, but it’s concretely illustrated throughout Psalms. In the midst of their concern of abandonment by God, Israelites would cry out for God to remember them and his covenant with them, a covenant that ensured ḥesed. As they meditated upon the character and deeds of God, they would praise his ḥesed, his steadfast love that would endure forever. 

The prayers of appeal and psalms of praise give us glimpses of God’s ḥesed; however, it’s also woven throughout the entire narrative in the book of Ruth. Naomi, Ruth’s mother-in-law, wants others to call her Mara, “bitter,” a powerful symbol for how she feels as she grieves all that’s she’s lost. And yet, this story illustrates God’s persistent care and kindness toward the one who feels rejected or forgotten. Again and again, God reaches out to Naomi with the gift of ḥesed through those journeying with her, such as Ruth and Boaz. God gently heals her bitterness as she witnesses for herself why Psalms 107 and 136 proclaim, “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his ḥesed endures forever.”

When I think about these Old Testament contexts that express God’s covenantal ḥesed, I’m increasingly convinced that Reinders’s words aren’t entirely correct. He assumes that professional caregivers cannot provide disabled persons with the good they long for, namely, to be chosen as a friend. Yet this assumption fails to fully appreciate the beauty of a covenantal relationship. Yes, they’ve taken an oath to do no harm, but this Hippocratic oath isn’t merely the pledge or vow they’re embodying as care for me. Rather, their intimate presence and active love personify a different type of oath: the divine covenant of ḥesed.

They’re the image of ḥesed, a devoted love that is active and never apathetic.

Mirroring the Great Physician

When I told my vascular surgeon that he was my very best friend, I meant it. My doctors and nurses have entered into my pain and shared my agony in ways that most have not. They’ve been my closest and most intimate allies. My contractually obligated friends in scrubs are an illustration of the ḥesed that should characterize friendship. 

In a relationship that is built upon a covenant or loving, contractual obligation, we do not merely receive the good of being chosen. Rather, we are gifted security in our chosenness. Perhaps that’s what we actually long for most. Yes, we want to be chosen, but what we really want is to know that we won’t be abandoned. Though Reinders may not agree with me, that’s the crucial good I receive from my nearest and dearest friends, my covenantal caregivers. These contractually obligated friends in scrubs are steadfast in a friendship they didn’t initially choose but are nevertheless committed to sustaining. They’re the image of ḥesed, a devoted love that is active and never apathetic. In their scrubs, they’re mirroring the great physician, the God who has extended to us the gift of friendship, the gift of intimate presence, the gift of ḥesed.

Lindsey Johnson Edwards
Lindsey is a ThM student at Dallas Theological Seminary who loves to write about hope and healing in Christ.

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