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A Chaplain's Perspective on the Pandemic: "He Leads Me Beside Still Waters"

I work at a large, 300-plus bed hospital in Columbus, Ohio. My primary assignment is in the emergency department, where we average around 2,500 traumas and 80,000 to 90,000 patient visits a year.

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 seven weeks. The COVID-19 virus has had an impact on so many facets of life.

Worldwide, over 350,000 people have died. In the past week, we passed 100,000 deaths in the United States. My home state passed 2,000. The hospital where I work is nearing 25, and I have personally been the chaplain with eight families who have lost a loved one to the virus. The victims' ages were between 47 and 79. I am 55 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.

Sometimes, being a compassionate presence who can keep their head is all that happens within a patient visit or family encounter. Yet, that can be a very effective chaplain encounter. At the same time, the chaplain is trained to try to assess and bring forth whatever has given that person or family hope, meaning and strength. To say it another way, the chaplain journeys and encourages the person or family to access within themselves whatever 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 each person or family answers that question.

On occasion, the chaplain is called upon to add insights from their own professional and theological training. That said, I am a Christian pastor; therefore, the lens by which I seek to view life is one of "grace and truth" (John 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 posted casualty projections for the United States. This was posted before any political or media spin. On this day, everything in the hospital changed. In fact, everything in the nation seemed to change on a dime.

The initial CDC projection was 200,000 to 1.7 million deaths in the United States, with a medium of 480,000 deaths. (Worst-Case Estimates for U.S. Coronavirus Deaths: March 13, 2020, The New York Times, Sheri Fink) Clearly, without being said, the potential for millions of deaths worldwide could be assumed.

Rooted on this foundation of truth, we are equipped to join others in their grief and mourning 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; 100,000 deaths are not 200,000 or 480,000 or 1.7 million. Worldwide, more than 350,000 have died, and this is not millions. Human decisions and sacrifices have made a difference!

Encouraging others to mourn properly and acknowledging sacrifices made together for one another (often, people who live in distant areas of the world whom 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 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 25 and 35 COVID+ patients daily. Most have recovered. A growing number have died.

Two of my assigned units (32 beds) are assigned for only COVID+ patients. Watching these teams of professionals has been amazing. Initially, I witnessed anxiety mixed with fear, met with a sense of professionalism and resolve. As the weeks have passed, the abnormal has 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 health care worker from another facility was treated as a patient on the unit. The virus and the reality of the daily risks got closer. That happened the first time I knew someone who was quarantined for being COVID+ and the first time a family lost a loved one. 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 gives our lives hope, meaning and strength.

Is it any wonder to read about a health care 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 with whom I work and my own 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, contracting the disease as they served others. One can only imagine the devastating impact if this is one of my teammates.

The reality is some people are on vents for weeks and months. What toll might this take on the medical professional who might begin questioning their own skills?

What can the chaplain offer?

Over the weeks, the overhead morning prayer has changed to try to 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 23:1-3a, NRSV).

Oh, 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 for all who have lost a loved one; a sense of peace and resolve for all of us as we try to do our best during this pandemic for our patients, each other, our families and people throughout the world we may never meet.

Oh, Good Shepherd, it is becoming clear that the challenges will continue for some time. Give us the wisdom to know our human frailties and limitations so that we will know when it is time to be still 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 gives your life hope, meaning and strength? How might you encourage and assist others in accessing hope, meaning and strength in themselves?

My hope, meaning and strength are found in Jesus, the embodiment of grace and truth. Through this, I find great comfort in God, my shepherd, who leads me beside still waters and restores my soul (Psalm 23:1-3a); Jesus, who rose from the grave and embodies resurrection hope (1 Peter 1:3); and God, who is faithful at all times and in all places in this life and the life to come (Psalm 23 and Romans 8:31-35 and 37-39). 

Be blessed.

John Ruiz, M. Div., BCC