The last time I had a chance to write was Easter morning and it is hard to believe all that has happened in the past nine weeks. The COVID-19 virus has had an impact on so many facets of life.
I am writing this reflection on June 10th and as of today over 400,000 people around the world have died. In the past week we passed 110,000 deaths in the United States. My home state of Ohio passed 2400 deaths due to COVID-19. The hospital where I work is nearing thirty and I have personally been the chaplain with ten families who have lost a loved one to the virus. The ages of these patients were between forty-seven and seventy-nine. I am fifty-five and am fortunate to have living parents. These ages do not seem old to me.
In the midst, of this, the chaplain’s role is to provide and represent insights found in our unique position in the hospital. Having this in mind, let me briefly explain that role.
A chaplain is to be a compassionate presence who can keep their head when frequently the people around them cannot. This is the beginning point of every encounter with patients, families and staff and it needs to happen 100% of the time.
There are times when being a compassionate presence who can keep their head is all that happens within a patient visit or family encounter and that action can be a very effective chaplain encounter. At the same time, the chaplain is trained to assess and bring forth whatever has given that person or family hope, meaning and strength in the past. To say it another way, the chaplain journeys and encourages the person or family to access within themselves whatever it is that has given their lives hope, meaning and strength. Finally, and for some this is the hardest part, the chaplain must be open and respectful to how that person or family answers that question.
On occasion the chaplain is called upon to add insights from their own professional and theological training. In my situation, I am a Christian pastor, therefore the lens by which I seek to view life is the lens of “grace and truth” (1:17b).
How does the lens of grace and truth influence and inform our understanding of this pandemic?
First, it provides a solid perspective. I remember very well the first day the Center for Disease Control (CDC) posted causality projections for the United States. This was posted before any political or media spin occurred. On this day everything in the hospital changed. In fact, everything in the nation seemed to change on a dime.
The initial CDC projection in March 2020 was 200,000 to 1.7 million deaths in the United States with a medium of 480,000 deaths. Clearly, without being said, the potential for millions of deaths worldwide could be assumed.
Rooted in this foundation of truth, we are equipped to join others in their personal grief and in the mourning of human loss unprecedented in my lifetime. We are also positioned to recognize and celebrate the incredible human effort in joining together for each other. Millions and millions of individual choices and sacrifices have made a tremendous difference; 110,000 deaths are not 200,000 or 480,000 or 1.7 million. Worldwide 400,000+ have died and this is not millions. Human decisions and sacrifices have made a difference!
Encouraging others to properly mourn and acknowledging sacrifices made together for each other (often-times people who live in distant areas of the world who we will never meet face to face) is rooted in grace and truth. Second, the virus has a way of intruding into our lives slowly and methodically. At one time it was occurring “over there”. Then it was closer, and the cities being impacted were in the USA, then the state of Ohio and on March 27 my own hospital. Since that time, we have had between twenty-five to thirty-five COVID+ patients daily. Most have recovered. A growing number have died.
Two of my assigned units (thirty-two beds) are assigned for COVID+ patients only. Watching these teams of professionals who are working with these patients has been amazing. Initially, there was anxiety mixed with fear met with a sense of professionalism and resolve. As the weeks have passed, the abnormal has gradually become normal as the same individuals put on their gear and enter COVID+ rooms in an almost routine way. And this routine of abnormality creates new challenges.
I remember the first time a healthcare worker from another facility was treated as a patient on the unit. The virus crept closer and the reality of the daily risks being made got closer. The first time I knew someone who was quarantined for being COVID+; the virus got closer. The first family who lost a loved one; the virus got closer. Fortunately, as I write these words, I have not personally lost someone to the virus.
Each time the virus gets closer, we are challenged to dig deep within ourselves and bring forth whatever it is that has given our lives hope, meaning and strength.
Is it any wonder to read about healthcare professional who simply could not cope with the stress, loss and continued challenges the virus brings? If a person answers the question of hope, meaning and strength in a way that is rooted in my own professional skills, the quality of the team I work with and my personal resolve I might be in trouble.
The reality is the number of people who cannot be saved medically is staggering and living within this harsh truth is extremely difficult.
The reality is hundreds of medical professionals around the world have died from contracting the diseases as they served others. One can only imagine the devastating impact if this is one of my teammates.
The reality is there are times when people are on breathing machines for weeks and months. What toll might this take on the medical professionals who begin questioning their own skills?
What can the chaplain offer?
Over the weeks the overhead morning prayer has changed to try and meet the current moment. Now, every Monday morning the prayer heard throughout the hospital reads:
The Lord is my shepherd I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures:
He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul. (Psalm 23:1-2)
O loving and Creator God, our Heavenly Father.
So much has happened in the recent past and for the past few months we have faced challenges that would have been unimaginable but a short time ago.
We give you thanks, O God, for leading us through this crisis; for giving us resiliency and hope.
And today we add to our prayers a sense of comfort to all who have lost a loved one; a sense of peace and resolve for all of us as we try and do our best during this pandemic for our patients, each other, our families and for people throughout the world we may never meet face to face. And a sense of wisdom.
Oh, Good Shepherd, it is becoming clear that the challenges we are facing will continue to be with us for some time. Give us the wisdom to know our human frailties and limitations so that we know when it is time to be still by still waters and allow You to restore our souls.
Continue to lead us to a time of laughter.
For there is a time for every season…(Ecclesiastes 3:1)
What is it that gives your life hope, meaning and strength and how might you encourage and assist others in accessing hope, meaning and strength in themselves?
For me, hope, meaning and strength are found in the One who is the embodiment of grace and truth; Jesus. Through this I find great comfort in God my Shepherd who leads me beside still waters and restores my soul (Psalm 23:1-2). God, who is faithful at all times and in all places in this life and in the life to come (Psalm 23 and Romans 8:31-35 and 37-39).
John Ruiz, MDiv, BCC has served in ministry for over 25 ears as both a local pastor and a hospital chaplain specializing in the emergency department and hospice/palliative care. Chaplain John’s primary assignments during the pandemic have been emergency department and the 32 Intensive Care Beds reserved for COVID+ patients.