I was only a couple of minutes into my morning exercise bike ride when the phone rang. I had volunteered to be on call for FMC chaplains for the weekend. They and the rest of the hospital staff were weary beyond words from the stress of caring for COVID patients. The call came 5 minutes before I was technically “on.” This can’t be good, I thought; it wasn’t.
A young ICU patient had been coded several times during the night and was being coded again. The family had asked for a chaplain. By the time I arrived, the patient had been revived but was still desperately ill. I was dressed in what is now standard protective gear for anyone having patient contact — eye protection and a very tight-fitting N-95 mask covered by a surgical mask. The family met me in their own protective disposable gowns, gloves, masks, and eye protection. They had nothing to protect them from their fear and their heart break. We spoke briefly, had a prayer together and they went back to their vigil.
A few hours later I called back to ICU to check on the patient. I was told that the patient had died a few minutes before my call. When I arrived back in the unit the family was still in the room saying goodbye to their loved one. They finally came out shocked, dazed and grief-stricken. They were barely aware as I prayed with them once again. They stripped away their protective gear and began the long journey to their home.
I will see this family in my mind’s eye for a long time.
I will also see the exhausted nurse come out of the room and complete her work. First she shed her own protective gear. How many hours had she spent in an enclosed room with a highly-infectious patient? I watched her sit and stare. I think that stare is something like the stare described by soldiers who have survived combat. Then there was the equipment to remove. For some reason the IV pole caught my attention; there were at least five electronic medicine pumps and literally yards of tubing that had been infusing various medicines. The technology of a lost fight for life had been that intense.
My Saturday call was the most intense of the weekend, but sadly not the only one. Sunday morning I was half a mile from my church when ICU called again. My Sunday school class would have to lead their own discussion; I was on my way back to the hospital. Once again the patient who died was much younger than I. Once again the staff had worked long and intensely but could not turn the tide of raging infection. Once again I donned my protective garb and met a devastated family in their own protective garb. Maintaining the cautious distance required by safety precautions creates additional barriers that make the effort to comfort the grieving feel surreal. We prayed aloud our sadness and our sense of loss.
There were other calls during the weekend, one of them a critical patient in the Emergency Room. In some ways, the experiences I describe were similar to ones I had over and over in the 39 years I walked the halls of Floyd Medical Center as chaplain. But the plague year of COVID-19 imposes an additional element of horror and death, of seemingly endless stress, exhaustion, frustration, and helplessness.
As I write, there are few places in the hospital one can walk without passing room after room with COVID patients, many of them fighting for their lives. I hope that few who read this will personally experience the long darkened hallway of ICU or the science-fiction looking B-20 temporary building brought to the FMC parking lot to house COVID patients.
I hope you have no need to go to the former Kindred Hospital rooms where COVID beds and COVID ICU have replaced long term care beds. I hope you have no need for treatment on a general medical floor that no longer has beds available because all beds are filled with COVID patients. I hope you have no medical emergency or trauma that sends you to the Emergency Room where you may have to be treated in a screened hallway because there are NO BEDS AVAILABLE.
It is, frankly, a bit unnerving to simply be in the hallways. But in those hallways are nurses, doctors, respiratory therapists, housekeepers, maintenance men, secretaries, and technicians of all kinds. Yes, there are chaplains and social workers there also. They are typically rather embarrassed to be singled out or to be called heroes. True heroes usually point to a colleague or simply state “I’m just doing my job.” They are indeed doing their job under incredibly stressful conditions. They calmly put on their PPE or the space-man-looking respirator mask or do whatever else is necessary to try and save lives.
I find the honor of working with hospital folks to be deeply fulfilling. To be accepted as a colleague by them is a privilege to be cherished. They are tired and far too often they are discouraged. They risk illness for themselves and cannot always avoid that very illness. But they keep coming back.
I write to say thank you to these folks I love and respect. I write to try and tell a fragment of their story. I also write as one more effort to encourage an often heedless public to give them a break by using good judgment about avoiding COVID.
Quit listening to garbage misinformation. Give up your denial and magical thinking. Pay more attention to your responsibility than to your rights. Get vaccinated. Wear your mask. Live healthily into next year and the years after that.