‘Sick, and You Visited Me’

Visiting the sick helps to combat the loss of identity they experience in the hospital.

Illustration by Saffa Khan

By Donald W. Shriver

I am a husband, parent, citizen, scholar, pastor, educator, author, ethicist, administrator, and world traveler, among many other things. But I was all but stripped of my identity when I was diagnosed with life-threatening B-cell lymphoma and assigned to a hospital bed.

There, I became simply “sick.”

Since my tonsillectomy at age five, I had not spent a single night in a hospital. When I was admitted to Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City at age 85, I was torn from my long life of self-management to one in which I put my very life and death in others’ hands.

I spent more than three months in that hospital bed.

The bed was on the far side of a cramped, semiprivate room. A thin curtain gave me a mere shred of visual privacy from my roommate. His frequent visitors often were boisterous.

Dressed in a standard-issue hospital gown, I was tethered to monitors and an intravenous drip. I had to learn to sleep on my back. I didn’t feel much like reading. I was assaulted constantly by anxious thoughts that I might be dying. The experience was one of confinement, loneliness, deprivation, and loss of control.

Around me, medical professionals were doing what they could to battle my cancer. But somehow, full recognition of my humanity was missing until a friend, family member, seminary colleague, or fellow church member squeezed in alongside my bed and brought news of the life I had left behind.

Whether we talked about current events, mutual friends, or common interests, they affirmed that the person Donald Shriver was more than a cancer case.

My experience opened my eyes to the importance of visits to “the sick.” And it especially enlightened me to one aspect of such visits: combating loss of identity.

In seminary, they taught us to be pastors by visiting the sick. I was not sure that such visits were very important.

To be truthful, early in my work as a pastor in the 1950s, visiting the sick seemed so useless. And during my years in academia, it was hard to remember that love of learning was not enough to knit the faculty together—although once, it seems I “got it right” in spite of myself. I made a hospital visit to a colleague with whom I frequently disagreed on school affairs. I learned that, afterward, he had remarked to another colleague, “You know, the president seems really to care for us!”

Today, in my late 80s, my own experience of hospitalization has confirmed unequivocally that the real “use” of visits is in their assurances to the sick that someone knows and cares for them outside the confines of the hospital. Thanks to my visitors, I felt affirmed as a social person with a history and a place in society.

We know much of who we are as individuals by the groups we are part of and that affirm us. As my Harvard professor James Luther Adams often said, “You shall know them by their groups.”

Being hospitalized suspended me from the variety of associations that I took for granted on the outside. I craved visits from people I knew from the many parts of my life.

I was hospitalized from September 2013 until after Christmas at Memorial Sloan Kettering. Upon release, I still faced five grueling rounds of chemotherapy with an aggressive experimental drug (that, thankfully, beat back the cancer). I wore a box filled with chemicals that flowed into my body through an IV twenty-four hours a day. My wife, Peggy, and friends drove me to the hospital four times a week for refills.

I was home, but by no means back to my life. I was greatly weakened, learning to walk with a cane, and needing help—and company.

After I completed treatment, and just as I was regaining a bit of strength, Peggy suffered a stroke. Following her hospitalization, I accompanied her to a rehabilitation and skilled nursing center about one hundred miles north of New York City, near Spencertown, New York, where we had a second home.

We stayed there for two and one-half months. Peggy continued her recovery and I got the support I needed in my still fragile state until we were able to get back to our apartment in New York City.

Reflecting on that time, I wrote an essay titled “On the Science of Medicine and the Blessings of Love.”1 Its form is a “conversation” with Dr. Lewis Thomas, author of The Lives of a Cell and former chancellor of Memorial Sloan Kettering who died of the very cancer that I am surviving.

In addition to exploring such “macro” issues as the unjust distribution of health care for the world’s sick, the essay explores the shock of lethal illness, the experience of “total institutions,” the loss of identity, and the healing role of one’s friends and family.

Hospitals are indeed “total institutions” in that they control almost every aspect of one’s life—temporarily, one hopes. But, with few exceptions, they do not pretend to be hosts to total persons. Up and down the halls, sick people are reduced to the role “sick,” and it is ordinary for nurses to speak of “the cardiac case in Room 24-N.”

Once, in conversation with a staff doctor at Memorial Sloan Kettering, I said, “Wouldn’t it be a good idea for all patients to have a note in their bedside record saying what their professional background happens to be?”

He responded, “Many people would consider that an intrusion into their personal lives.”

“No,” I countered. “One’s work is an important part of who we are. Your work, too.”

In the United States we tend to identify people with their work, which, I acknowledge, may be a distortion of their personhood, too. But equally distorting is the tendency in hospital culture to identify a patient solely with his or her illness.

We, the sick, are more than our bodies. We are persons with a history and with relationships that support our personhood. Visitors represent the connections that define a patient outside the hospital.

Indeed we, the sick, are more than our bodies. We are persons with a history and with relationships that support our personhood. Visitors represent the connections that define a patient outside the hospital.

Among my most regular visitors at Memorial Sloan Kettering were two clergy friends and John Delfs and his wife, Nanette Bourne, friends through New York’s Riverside Church.

John, himself a physician, served the overt expansion of my identity by informing my doctors about what he considered to be the importance of saving my life for its potential service to causes consistent with my personal history.

That opinion might not have been needed to boost my doctors’ professional commitment that every life is worth saving, but it certainly boosted my morale to have him make such claims!

Visits had a desirable “side effect” of informing nurses about some of my neglected selfhood, and even opened my awareness, through ensuing conversation, about their selfhood, too.

For example, one of my nurses overheard mention of South Africa in one of my conversations with visitors and volunteered that she was from South Africa. I told her I had written two books and several papers about my visits to her country.

She bought two copies of one book, one for herself and the other for her father. It was a gratifying connection with a person busy caring for me in my illness. Just as I was more than my illness, she was more than her work.

Best among my “visitors” was my wife. Medical staff commented that, when Peggy was around, this patient named Shriver was a “better patient!”

My hospitalization cut short my active involvement in a project Peggy and I had helped to begin that pressed for reform in New York City’s criminal justice system.

Peggy kept me updated on plans for a consultation that followed up on our month-long trip to New Zealand for study of its restorative justice system that sought to keep young offenders away from prison. Peggy continued to convene meetings of the committee that was planning that consultation.

My wife and John Delfs argued successfully for the hospital to release me for a day to attend that event. Afterwards, a number of hospital doctors asked, with sincere interest in the topic, “How did that consultation go?”

While at the rehabilitation and skilled nursing center upstate, we received visits at least once a week from members of our Spencertown congregation, one of whom picked me up to go to church each Sunday morning.

John and Nanette visited us there at least four times. They illustrate for me the priesthood of all believers—something we are celebrating especially this year as we mark the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.

One Saturday, five members of Riverside Church made the two-hour drive up from New York City to visit us. I felt like the church was coming to me! The group included some prominent members, and I was touched that they took time for us.

They smuggled in a bottle of wine sent by Riverside Church friends Clarence and Emily Anderson, a welcome gift and a luxury in a “dry” facility. By then, I had recovered enough from my chemotherapy to enjoy it!

We talked about our mutual interest in the church’s “Coming Home” program for welcoming recently imprisoned persons back into the community.

My experience of hospitalization had viscerally hardened my opposition to solitary confinement of prisoners and bolstered my commitment to work for restorative justice.

Hospitals remind me of prisons, so confined does one feel in that bed, with so little authority for deciding when one might be well enough to go home. In fact, one of my doctors at Memorial Sloan Kettering once said to me, “I know you sometimes feel like you are in a prison.”

When visitors came, they broke up the hospital-prison analogy. But in solitary confinement, prisoners are completely cut off and are robbed progressively of their very humanity.

My experiences of confinement, first to a hospital and then to a rehabilitation center, took my mind back to guidelines for visiting the sick that my seminary professors had stressed. Here are some—interwoven with points of my own:

  • Your presence is the ministry.
  • For that, even ten or fifteen minutes may be enough.
  • Much talk can be a burden.
  • If possible, sit down. Don’t hurry away. Try to share some of the pain.
  • Be not too inquisitive about symptoms and prospects for return to health.
  • Bring some news of friends, work, and the causes you know are precious to this patient.
  • Share with a nurse or doctor a little bit of why you cherish this person.
  • Offer a word of support to the doctors and nurses, too. They carry the tremendous burden of trying to be healers in face of the certainty that some of our illnesses will end in death.
  • Ask if there is any favor or errand you might undertake on the patient’s behalf.
  • Continue to call after your friend/parishioner leaves the hospital.
  • Pastors, get to know your congregants before they get sick.
  • The most valuable visits are from people one knows.
  • If it feels right, offer a prayer, being sure to mention concern for the patient’s family and for their nurses and doctors.

As a theologian and ethicist, how can I conclude this article without preaching a little? A visit to the sick has eschatological, ultimate significance!

In Matthew 25:31–46, Jesus teaches that at the Last Judgment, when the Creator summons up from the capacious divine memory our errors and virtues, the Creator’s preoccupation will be whether in our earthly time we have cared for each other’s ordinary bothersome pains.

Those pains include hunger, thirst, imprisonment, loneliness, illness.

This is radical incarnation ethics. The divine Self has so identified with human selves that to touch one is to touch the other. For Christians, it’s the most salient reason for visiting one’s sick neighbors.2


  1. This article is available for download on the Union Theological Seminary website.
  2. Thank you to Carol Fouke-Mpoyo, an ecumenical writer and editor, who helped ready this article for publication.

Donald W. Shriver is president emeritus of Union Theological Seminary, where he was also Professor of Ethics from 1975 to 1996. His PhD from Harvard was awarded in 1962. He is the author of sixteen books, including An Ethic for Enemies: Forgiveness in Politics (Oxford University Press, 1995) and Honest Patriots: Loving a Country Enough to Remember Its Misdeeds (Oxford University Press, 2005).

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