By David Fleenor
I have a voice message saved on my phone that I will never delete. I still get choked up when I listen to it. I received it mid-afternoon on April 7, 2020, as I walked from my office in the Spiritual Care Department at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York to the cafeteria.
I was exhausted, frazzled, and hungry. I can still feel the tension I was holding in my body that day, mostly in my face and throat, as I held back tears. New York City was under siege by the coronavirus. Eight hundred people in New York State per day were dying. Twenty-five per cent of the nation’s COVID-19 cases were concentrated in the city.
The city was eerily quiet except for the near-constant wail of sirens as ambulances transported the sick and dying to overwhelmed hospitals.
We feared there were not enough hospital beds. A tent was erected in Central Park to create more. A Navy ship with an additional 1,000 beds was docked in the Hudson River with military personnel standing by to provide emergency medical care. It was a strange and stressful time.
I’ve been a hospital chaplain and educator for over 15 years. My job is to provide spiritual and emotional support to patients and their families during periods of hospitalization. I teach aspiring chaplains how to enter a hospital room, initiate a conversation with a stranger about sacred matters in their lives, and respond with words of comfort tailored to their spiritual and cultural worldviews.
None of this — teaching spiritual care or providing it — is easy under the best of circumstances. I’ve been through several natural disasters, mostly hurricanes, but never anything like this. I didn’t know how or if we would make it through, and I was scared.
My wife, Amy, the director of spiritual care at the same hospital where I work, was battling COVID-19 herself. Our daughter, Dorothy, was with her biological father and his family in rural Massachusetts for an indefinite period.
I was trying to do my job while at the same time serving as the interim director of spiritual care while Amy recuperated. It wasn’t clear to us how Amy contracted COVID-19. Amy, Dorothy, and I had taken our annual vacation in February to Istanbul.
We devoured delicious Turkish and Yemeni food and allowed ourselves to be awestruck by the history and beauty of the Hagia Sophia. We had the bizarre experience of a traditional Turkish bath, and we danced the night away on an international dinner cruise down the Bosphorus.
A while after we returned to New York, Dorothy had what seemed like a bad cold. Amy hugged and kissed her like any good mom would do to help her feel better. And like most stepdads, I kept my distance, trying to keep from catching whatever she had. I didn’t see any sense in all of us getting sick. But that’s what happened.
Soon, Amy had similar symptoms as Dorothy. She called Employee Health and was advised to quarantine, hydrate, and rest. Covid tests were scarce at that time, and the assumption was that if you had symptoms, then you probably had COVID-19.
Dorothy recovered and went to Massachusetts. Meanwhile, Amy and I tried to keep our distance from one another, which only lasted about four hours.
Public health officials advised anyone with symptoms to go to separate parts of their homes and use separate bathrooms. All of that assumes you live in a large enough home to create distance from each other, which was laughable in our — and most New Yorkers’ — situation.
The average NYC apartment is roughly 800 square feet with one bathroom. How were we going to socially distance? But we tried. Amy went to the bedroom, and I stayed in the living room. After about an hour we were both bored and missed each other. We got creative and tried to use our smart speakers’ “drop-in” feature to talk to each other from separate rooms. Before long, we gave up and decided to share the living room while wearing masks and sitting six feet apart. None of it worked, and I soon got sick, too.
My bout with Covid was relatively short, at least in comparison to my wife’s. We both continued to work from home as much as we were physically able. I soon returned to work onsite and found myself angry. Every little thing annoyed me.
A teacher once told me that some people cover their sadness with anger while others cover their anger with sadness. I knew in which group I belonged. I was grieving.
It was in that context that I received the voice message. As I walked through the hospital and the phone rang, I lamented how everything had changed. Workers had constructed new, makeshift hospital rooms in the atrium.
I was stunned out of my thoughts when I felt my phone buzz. I pulled it out of my pocket, saw my friend’s name, and wanted to answer but just didn’t have it in me. With that realization, tears began to well up behind my eyes. I let it go to voicemail and continued walking angrily, tearfully to my destination.
A couple of hours later, I pulled out my phone and saw I had a voice message to listen to from my friend in Alabama. I had met Malcolm Marler two decades ago when I was training to be a hospital chaplain. Already a chaplain himself, he was someone I looked up to because of his boundless compassion and creativity.
One of America’s first chaplains to serve in an outpatient clinic, Malcolm’s ministry at that time was with Alabamans with HIV/AIDs. Realizing how few patients he could reasonably care for on his own, he developed a support team program focused on providing spiritual, emotional, and practical support to patients who needed it. The program caught on, and soon he was a nationally sought-after speaker.
Years later, he would become the director of spiritual care at Alabama’s top hospital. I’ve looked up to Malcolm for a long time and consider him a professional role model and a friend. I pressed play and heard these words:
“Hey David, it’s Malcolm and I’m just giving you a call to let you know I am thinking about you, my friend. A lot. You and Amy both. I just wanted you to know that. If you do not have time to return this call, I understand it and it’s not a problem.
“Just wanted you to know you’re loved and that you’re not alone … and I just want to give you some encouragement. Take good care. Bye-bye.”
The voice message ended, and I wept. Those were precisely the words I needed to hear that day. He didn’t burden me with a request. He didn’t want anything. He just called to offer a word of encouragement, and it made all the difference. As I wept, I could feel weeks of fear, anguish, and rage release from my body.
This experience reminded me of an essential life lesson: that small acts of kindness make a huge difference. I don’t know how long it took Malcolm to decide to call me. I just know that that voice message was 37 seconds long. In not even one minute, he lifted my spirits and helped me drop some of my burdens.
It is unclear when this pandemic will end, if ever. We seem to go through periods of near-normalcy followed by spikes and surges that send us back to our isolation and grief. Whether it abates or not, there will always be another tragedy: a new cancer diagnosis, a natural disaster, a senseless act of violence, or a divorce. In all these cases, there will always be people who need to hear a word of encouragement.
If you have an extra 37 seconds to spare, call someone today. If they don’t pick up, leave a message. Let them know you are thinking of them, that they are loved and not alone. And that they don’t even need to call you back.
The Rev. David Fleenor is a priest in the Diocese of New York, director of education for the Center for Spirituality and Health at Mount Sinai Health System and assistant professor of medical education at the Icahn School of Medicine. This article originally appeared in the Episcopal New Yorker.