A hospital chaplain tells us what inspired him during the difficult early months of the pandemic.
Posted in , Mar 7, 2022
John was the first Covid-19 patient I spoke with over the phone at Norton Women’s & Children’s Hospital, where I am a chaplain.
According to my patient list, John was 33, Hispanic. It was March 2020. He had been in our hospital two days. That spring, as the deadly virus was first diagnosed in Kentucky, we chaplains were encouraged to comfort patients by phone to conserve protective equipment and reduce the risk of infection. It was difficult not being able to see them.
“How are you?” I asked.
“Better,” John said. His labored breathing indicated otherwise. He sounded as if he was suffocating, every breath a battle.
He said he had no family nearby. “I’d be happy to pray with you,” I said.
“I don’t believe….” A long pause.
I tried to complete his thought: “You don’t believe in God?”
With his last ounce of strength, he gasped, “I will recover.”
I wasn’t sure what he meant, but it felt wrong to keep him on the phone any longer. I promised to call him the next day. He thanked me. By evening he was dead. My first Covid-related death. We were both Hispanic, soon to be defined as a high-risk demographic. He could have been me, I thought.
A novel virus, Covid-19, had arrived on American shores in January. For weeks, I’d lived with the hope that the virus would be contained before it reached Kentucky. I hadn’t let myself consider any other scenario. Reality shook me to my core.
“Covid has arrived, and now we walk through a dark valley…and I am very much afraid,” I wrote in my journal.
Part of my job as a hospital chaplain—a position I’ve served in for 14 years—is to help calm the anxieties of the patients I minister to. I understand the fear that comes with facing a medical trauma. As a teenager, I survived a brain tumor. I saw how God worked through the love of others. As a chaplain, I got to pay that love forward. But Covid felt different. It was hard to be hopeful, hard to know if I was helping.
Until I turned my focus to the people around me, looking outward instead of inward. I began noticing acts of compassion. And the more I looked, the more I found—a practice I continue to this day. Compassion is everywhere, as contagious as any virus.
One of the first times this struck me was early in the pandemic, during a code blue. I saw Deb, a pharmacist nine months pregnant, literally running from our Covid unit to the ICU and back.
Even in the urgency of the moment, Deb’s selflessness seemed remarkable. Everyone would have understood if she hadn’t. Yet it was a lesson that would stay with me throughout the hard months to follow: Compassion demands courage. It takes great courage not to turn away from those in such desperate need, to put yourself at risk for the good of others.
Later I asked Deb about it. “If you’re not willing to run for someone who is dying, when will you ever do it?” she told me. “We have husbands and wives and mothers and daughters dying of Covid in the hospital. If I run fast enough, maybe we can save at least one of them.”
After our conversation, I remembered a Jewish proverb: “Before every person, there marches an angel proclaiming, ‘Behold, the image of God.’” During the code, I beheld the image of God. And it was lovely. That moment stayed with me.
It’s been said that when we watch a film together, none of us sees the same film. The same is true for traumatic events. We all experienced the pandemic together but felt it differently. Some grieved; some raged; some took action; some retreated into denial.
At times I tried to escape. But everywhere I ran led me right back to Covid. The virus was all-consuming, relentless. So often I wanted to flee, to spend time with my wife and my pets, away from the pain, the sorrow, the anguish I dealt with daily at work. My home was quiet and less anxious than anywhere else.
At one point, my wife and I discussed living in separate quarters for safety, but the thought of doing so was infinitely more stressful than going through this together, whatever the outcome. So we limited our time together, and I had a ritual of throwing my clothes in the washer as soon as I entered the house. I mostly stayed downstairs, and she mostly stayed upstairs. It was simple yet proved effective.
Even at home, people were contacting me late at night to share their anxiety. I often didn’t know what to say. I admitted to a friend once, “I have nothing to offer you. I have only tears.” I felt as if I’d failed her, but those words gave her comfort. They reminded her she wasn’t the only one struggling with the pandemic.
Similarly, that April, a chaplain friend told me, “I don’t feel safe anywhere because I don’t think anyone knows what safe is.” Her vulnerability filled me with compassion. I reminded her (and myself), “Covid is strong, but we are stronger.” I wasn’t sure if I totally believed it, but I wanted to believe that strength, like faith, comes not from what we can see with our eyes but what we feel in our hearts.
The governor of Kentucky chose the color green to honor all Covid-19 victims and their families. Homes, banks, landmarks, hospitals and universities across the state were lit up with green lights. Each night in my own neighborhood, most of the homes were lit in green. Many places across the country, indeed all around the world, were displaying similar acts of support for their community.
My friend Carola told me how people in Nova Scotia created a Facebook page to support each other through music, recipes, crafts and uplifting photos. Another friend, Laura, said that when her upstate New York community went into lockdown, within 24 hours free lunch stations were set up all over town to ensure no child would go hungry, especially those who depend on school meals.
My high school friend Julia’s husband died two weeks before Covid slammed into her northern Virginia community. Forced separation from friends made Julia’s grief even harder to bear. She said what really saved her from spiraling into the abyss was that her local YMCA provided virtual support.
Every day, instructors came into her home via her computer, providing connection, motivation, inspiration and prayer. Despite having to navigate their own personal life challenges, they were faithful visitors, giving her what she needed during this incredibly difficult time.
Hearing all these stories made me ponder. So much of the love and solidarity in the world we’re unaware of—or at least I am. And yet when you stop to think about it, the impact is incalculable, awe-inspiring, like trying to count the stars that fill the heavens.
I switched my work hours so that I could support our second- and third-shift employees. An ICU nurse named Hannah shared her first experience with a Covid patient. She was new to nursing and very afraid of contracting the virus. This patient was extremely ill. It was Christmastime.
She cared for him nine days straight, even coming in on her days off. Being that she couldn’t be with her family and his family couldn’t be with him, she decided “we would be family for each other.”
Then Hannah told me, “There is the Christmas story where Mary and Joseph get to Bethlehem and there is no room in the inn for them. Well, there was room in my heart for my patient. He wouldn’t be left out in the cold by himself. I was going to be his angel even if he never knew it.” He never did know because he was intubated his entire hospitalization. Sadly, he died. “Taking care of him gave me the courage to help other Covid patients,” Hannah said. “I will never forget him.”
My friend Caroline, who lives in Belgium, told me about her 73-year-old neighbor, who had been taken to the hospital with Covid. It was touch and go for a bit, but she finally came home. “I put in front of her door a beautiful basket full of vegetables, fruits, biscuits, chocolates…and even a small bottle of Italian spritz prosecco,” Caroline said. “She was so happy. I know doctors and nurses are working all hours, and it is horrible to see. This is my contribution to the effort.”
In April 2020, an ICU nurse in my hospital, Myra, was caring for a Covid patient who eventually died. It was scary being in a Covid-positive room in those early days. When it came time to clean the room, Myra told the environmental service employee not to come in. “I will clean,” she said. “Don’t enter and risk infection.” Then she started mopping the room while we watched from the safety of the hallway.
What Myra did was an extraordinary act of compassion. The whole world, according to Paul in Romans, stands on tiptoes waiting to see the marvelous things of God. It’s true. I felt blessed—as I have so many times during this pandemic—simply to bear witness.
Now it is 2021. The Delta variant sweeps the country, and there is a long way to go before we get to the other side of Covid. I am a different person than I was in the spring of 2020. I am more hopeful because I know I am not alone. There are billions of us around the world on this journey together. That thought alone gives me peace and reassurance.
I am greatly encouraged when I remember that the majority of people have mobilized to protect and sustain the most vulnerable among us. While Covid has had a devastating impact, the human spirit has not been extinguished or laid low. Quite the contrary.
Heroes great and small, acts of kindness and compassion publicly acknowledged or privately treasured, all bear witness to the goodness of humankind. We have walked through this darkest of nights together, and we are also witnesses to the light that overcomes the darkness. Faced with sorrow, chaos and pain, our response has been love. Courage. Compassion. May it always be so.
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