In Seoul I climbed mountains to stand in candle-lit Buddhist temples perched on the steep slopes. I’ve stood with the throng in St. Peter’s Square in the Vatican listening to the Pope give his Easter address from a balcony. I’ve sat in silence with Quakers in the exquisite simplicity of a wooden meeting room lit by sun streaming in through skylights. But the most sacred moment I’ve been privy to thus far took place in a slightly shabby hospital room at New-York Presbyterian Hospital in New York City.
It happened about six years ago, when I was there with my daughter, who was six months old at the time. She was scheduled to have surgery the following day, and a trio of phlebotomists had come in to her hospital room to draw blood for the requisite pre-operative blood work. It’s a one-person job, but I was not at all surprised to see several come in together. Already by six months, my baby was a veteran of hospital rooms and E.R.s, so I knew by then that even the most experienced phlebotomists hate “sticking” infants. In those first six months of my daughter’s life, more than once I’d watch the phlebotomist’s face fall when he or she would enter the cubicle to see me waiting with my baby in my arms. They would immediately excuse themselves to start hunting for a colleague upon whom to foist off the dirty deed. What made it worse was that my daughter was what they call a “hard stick,” and it often took multiple attempts before a tiny vein could be found. More than once a nurse or phlebotomist would try a couple times and would then refuse to try again. On one occasion, after the first phlebotomist failed to draw blood after two attempts, we had to wait for another one to come back from lunch, because no one else could be conscripted.
So there in the hospital, when three phlebotomists walked in to my baby’s room to draw her blood, I understood. Other doctors and nurses happened to be in the room when they came in, and together they formed a circle around the bed where I sat holding my baby. At the periphery, others watched with bowed heads.
It was silent in the room as the phlebotomist prepared her needles and tubes, but as soon as she began a gentle whispering filled the room. It rose up all around me like the rustle of autumn leaves being blown by the wind. It took me a moment to realize what it was: the sound of people in that room, from all over the world, offering up prayers in their own languages for my little baby, for the phlebotomist to draw her blood easily, and on the first try.
She was able to do it. My daughter cried for just a few seconds and then smiled up at the phlebotomist when the needle was withdrawn. The woman turned to look at me with tears in her own eyes and marveled in her softly accented English, “What kind of baby is this? She’s smiling at me, after I just poked her with a needle!”
There are very few moments in life like this: moments so rare and precious when you know that you are in the presence of something holy and you feel sanctified for having witnessed it. I will remember this moment and the goodness and decency of strangers, who all prayed to some higher being that my baby would be spared pain, with wonder and deep gratitude for the rest of my life.