Last Friday when I was on call, I received a page at 11:00 pm to see a patient who was dying. No word was said about Covid-19. Since I’m a palliative care chaplain, seeing a dying patient was not unusual for me. I got dressed and made my way to my car for the 10-minute drive to the hospital.
When I arrived at the hospital, I put on my usual gear, face mask and face shield, and headed to the ICU. Once I found the room, I asked which nurse was caring for this patient. Someone pointed to a nurse inside the patient’s room. It was then that I realized this was a patient with COVID-19. The nurse stepped one foot outside the room and said, “Yep, she’s got COVID, so no family is here but there are lots of family on Zoom watching her.” That gave me pause. Our typical visit to a patient with COVID-19 was to stay outside the room and offer prayer. Instead, I decided I would don the PPE and enter the room. I’d done many calls to family members and had spoken with one patient who was short of breath but not intubated. This time was different. Knowing that family were there, through technology, it felt right to go in and be with the patient. A nurse outside the room walked me through the donning procedure they all knew so well. I held a prayer book in one hand, unsure how to manage this. Immediately, a nurse handed me a plastic Ziplock bag to use. I opened the book to the prayer I had planned to read, placed it in the bag and sealed it shut. “Armed” and ready, I entered the room.
It was very dark and quiet. The patient appeared unconscious and a bit disheveled. I wanted to help fix her pillow but refrained. The nurse motioned to the iPad on a pole. I leaned forward and saw the many faces staring back at me, each in their Zoom square. The family was keeping vigil in a way I’d never witnessed before. I introduced myself and asked them to tell me about their loved one. Some laughed and said what a jokester she was and how she loved to play Bingo. Her faith was very important to her as well. Honoring this, I invited the group to pray.
Fumbling with the plastic bag, I read the words of commendation aloud. I heard sniffling and the soft murmur of sadness as I spoke. Then, I offered an informal prayer that spoke of this woman’s love of Bingo and joking around. It was brief, maybe too brief. I paused and asked if there was anything else I could do. The family thanked me for the prayer and for visiting their loved one. As I was tearing off my PPE at the door, I heard comments like, “That was a nice prayer.” “It was nice of her to come to see mom.”
Out at the desk, I began cleaning my face shield. Another nurse thanked me for physically going in the room. It was then that I realized the importance of being like our medical personnel who risk their safety by donning PPE every single day here. I had joined them in that risk which had meaning for them. One nurse said that she hoped “we never get sloppy” about the routine. I agreed.
Then, I went home, pondering if I’d done enough. It’s always a question worth considering. Is any of what we do enough? For me as a chaplain, it can feel very nebulous since we never change a bandage or administer medication. What we do is so intangible. Perhaps that’s why I love to vacuum, to be able to see real results. It’s also why I love to garden, so I can rejoice when green lettuce or beautiful red tomatoes blossom from a single seed in the dirt. That’s what we do, us chaplains, during this strange pandemic, we plant seeds in the dark room of a patient and hope that somehow, they blossom. And maybe, that’s enough.