By Ted Streuli
There is little to think about besides death. Our only break from the COVID-19 pandemic, which as of this writing, has claimed more than 200,176 lives, was a pause to remember the Oklahomans lost 25 years ago in a bombing.
Most Club 29 members are working online, eager to return to their offices and luncheons and happy hours. It’s easy to look out the window from my home office and complain that I can’t take my family out for a Friday night meal at a favorite restaurant or call a friend to sit with me behind the visitors’ dugout, Dodger Dog in hand. I’m in a bubble, watching the world on TV and talking to people — even attending Rotary meetings — via Zoom. We’re past the jokes about hoarding toilet paper and catching up on Netflix.
The novelty is gone and I find myself turning to think more directly about the hospital chaplains and nurses and doctors who are busy trying to comfort and heal those afflicted and their families while at risk of becoming the cared-for instead of the caregiver.
The New Yorker posted an exceptional story about chaplains at the huge Mt. Sinai Hospital in Manhattan. Their boss, an Episcopalian priest named David Fleenor, starts new chaplains off by asking them how they’d like to die.
“Nobody says, ‘I’d like to die gasping for air, alone,’” he told The New Yorker. The fear of a lonely death is foundational to palliative care, and hospitals all over the country have No One Dies Alone volunteer programs. “Now we have a pandemic that requires you to die alone,” Fleenor said. “It is very distressing to hospital staff. It is very distressing to patients, God help them.”
One of Fleenor’s colleagues, Kaytlin Butler, a soon-to-be-ordained Presbyterian minister, has been called upon to comfort patients, families and staff alike. She took a call from a staff member; a patient had died from COVID-19 and his nurse was particularly distraught. Would Butler look in?
She found the nurse crying in a stairwell.
The New Yorker wrote:
Butler sat down near the nurse. The two women wore masks over their mouths. Butler told the nurse that her tears were a gift to her patient—they affirmed how much she cared for the man. “It’s so honoring of who he was,” Butler said.
The nurse asked Butler if she was going to Hell. In the coming week, many nurses would ask this question. Their patients were dying. Would God hold them responsible?
Butler was stricken. She told the nurse that her patient had died in a crisis that was bigger than her care, and that she had done everything she could to save him.
“I and your team will know that for you, until you are ready to know it yourself,” Butler said.
The pandemic is a virus, but the plague is fear. This month, that has manifested in wearing protective gear or social distancing, but it’s also turned up disguised as a sense of urgency to return to our normal routines. If we can just get back to work, to dinner, to baseball, to our Rotary meetings, everything will be OK.
Eventually, of course, it will. We’ll be back at St. Luke’s, scanning badges, singing the anthem and trying to talk ourselves out of decimating the dessert table. Normal will be a little different; we’ll know we’re vulnerable, we’ll know we’re unprepared, we’ll know we can’t fight off every threat with force. We’ll also know that we can get through it, that we can work remotely if we have to. A few of us might even have discovered that an empty calendar and time with the family carries some weight we’ve been overlooking.
Kaitlyn Butler sometimes has to pray with patients she can’t reach, without knowing their faith tradition. Recently, with one COVID-19 patient, a man she didn’t know, she stood outside his room and sang an Irish blessing, hoping he wouldn’t object. It struck me as an appropriate sentiment for my fellow Rotarians.
“May the road rise to meet you / May the wind be always at your back. . . . And, until we meet again / May God hold you in the palm of his hand.”