Footwashing in the psych ward

Why would Jesus honor me in this way?

Chris Detrick/Church of the Brethren Chris Detrick/Church of the Brethren

Arriving for my evening nursing shift at the inpatient psych ward in our university hospital, I was not too happy to see I had been assigned to the new patient with AIDS dementia.

He had pushed his elderly mother, who was trying to care for him at home, and she had fallen and hit her head on a table, fracturing her skull. He was in an advanced stage of dementia, and his mother would not be able to care for him anymore. Psychiatric medication might get him calm enough to be manageable at a nursing home.

When I walked into his room, I was shocked by his appearance. He looked like a survivor from a concentration camp. As I sat and talked with him, he seemed to have some connection to reality. I said I would be back with medications and a snack he had chosen.

When I returned, I brought a tube of foot ointment that had been ordered. I asked if I could apply the ointment to his feet, and he agreed. I took off his socks. Finding his feet exceedingly dirty, asked if I could bring a basin of warm water to wash them. He agreed, got up from his bed and sat in a chair.

I brought in the basin of water and chatted while he soaked his feet for a few minutes. Then I knelt and held one of his feet in my latex-gloved hand.

A jolt like electricity went through me — a feeling that I was washing the feet of Jesus.

I could not understand why Jesus would honor me by having me wash his feet. But the feeling stayed with me. I did not want it to end, so I lovingly washed his feet for a long time.

I was too struck with awe to talk with the man while I washed his feet. I looked up at his face a few times. He was sitting with his head resting against the back of the chair with his eyes closed and a slight smile on his lips.

After I dried his feet, applied the ointment and put a clean pair of socks on his feet, he opened his eyes and said, with a big smile: “Thank you. That was nice.”

I am not sure why I had this ex­perience on that night in 1991. But I know Jesus said whenever we minister to the least of these, we minister to him.

The experience helped me develop a gift for calming psychotic patients. I always told myself this was Jesus in the disguise of a person in distress.

It also guided me to focus my career on working with the severely mentally ill who have a hard time coping in the community. They are not well understood and are often alone and homeless.

I am retired now, but I still do some volunteer work with the mentally ill. When I work with them, the end of one of our sending blessings often comes to mind: “May you see the face of Christ in everyone you meet, and may everyone see the face of Christ in you” (Voices Together, No. 1066).

Nancy Price is a retired psychiatric nurse practitioner and a member of Rochester Mennonite Fellowship in New York.

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