Living in the middle of a global pandemic is very challenging, but for me, as a postulant in the Diocese of Oklahoma. The canonical requirements for ordination still had to be completed, and I signed up for one unit of Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) at Hillcrest Medical Center in Tulsa. My fellow interns and supervisors were unsure of how the unit would pan out, but we would do our best to come out on the other side of a ten-week program with the best experience possible. Reflecting on my experiences in the program, I reflect on the many lessons I had with COVID-19 as a chaplain.
I remember walking into a COVID-19 unit for the first time, the hall was darkened, and you could hear the humming of the air purifiers that were in every hospital room on the unit. For me, as a chaplain intern, it was like walking into the surface of a new planet. Access to COVID-19 rooms was strictly prohibited until now. Before allowing chaplains to visit, patients would die alone with nurses, sometimes using technology to connect family members outside of the hospital. Even as we were allowed to visit, we could only enter the COVID-19 rooms if a patient was near death, and we could only volunteer to provide pastoral care, as opposed to being directed to visit.
However, there I was, and, in my mind, everything had COVID-19; the walls, surfaces, doors, patients, windows, and even the air I breathed. I kept my composure because I felt a profound sense of duty to visit with a patient that was going to be taken off a respirator and eventually pass. My understanding of responsibility to the Gospel had led me to throw my hand in the air, without hesitation and now I was walking into a patient’s room who loved God and needed prayers, and his family needed consoling.
A nurse met me halfway to the nurse’s station and ordered me to remove my “used” face covering, and to put on an N95 mask along with a “fresh facemask” on top of my N95. I was also ordered to put on a sort of surgical hair-net, gloves, a plastic gown that became very hot after a short while, and disposable eye protection. With all kinds of barriers on myself, I looked more like a surgeon than a chaplain. I made my way into the room with the dying patient. I noticed that the patient had dirt in their nails and a scraped knee. I imagined their life before laying in the room, so close to death. I imagined them working in their vegetable garden, playing outside with loved ones, and doing all sorts of activities before ending up in the hospital. As I imagined the life of this person, the nurse started turning down the volume on the cardiac equipment connected to the patient, so when the individual would perish, the beeping noises would not disturb the family.
Inside the room, the medical equipment made many unique noises, from the actual respirator emulating the breathing of the lungs to the loud ventilator that hummed so loudly, I could barely hear the nurse’s instructions. A FaceTime call was made to the family, and I had to pray so loudly so they could listen to me. I was yelling my prayer at the tablet used to call the patient’s family. It was probably, not the most edifying prayer I have said out loud, but I tried my best despite the circumstances. After I prayed for the person, I waited until the patient died. As the patient’s heartbeat slowly faded, I became less aware of the different noises that the hospital floor produced, for a second, it was only the patient who was dying and me. I would go on to see three more people die due to COVID-19, only one time I was with family. The other times, it was the nurse and me in the room witnessing people leaving this earth.
COVID-19 has upended our lives and church communities, and nothing seems like it will ever go back to normal. However, as I am completing my Clinical Pastoral Education, I am thankful for the opportunities it afforded me. The chance to be the hands and feet of Jesus in a global pandemic was a unique opportunity for me. I lament ruined plans and yearn for community, but I also feel a deep sense of gratitude for the hospital experiences I witnessed during this pandemic. Gratitude for having the opportunity to do ministry with a group of tough, flexible, wonderful chaplain interns, and our supervisors. Appreciation for all those people, we met and had the chance to be intimate strangers with them. I am also profoundly humbled by witnessing death up close, and I will never forget the names of those individuals whom I saw go to a better place. I also felt a profound sense of duty to bring hope and love to many people who are far away from family. Lastly, I am thankful for the opportunity to have performed countless prayers so that God could heal, purify, soften, love, and care for people in a hospital setting.
As we patiently wait for COVID-19 to be a memory, let us patiently do good, when we can, however we can.
[Omar is in his middle year of the Master of Divinity program at Virginia Theological Seminary and is sponsored by St. Dunstan's Episcopal Church in Tulsa, OK]