Wednesday, February 24th, 2021
"... whether in the Church or in the world, as deacons we go to the darkest places with the Light of Christ and declare 'even here Christ is Risen!'"
(The photo above was taken before the pandemic.) This article is part of our ongoing series spotlighting deacons across the diocese. To learn more about becoming a deacon, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. The following is republished from Diakoneo, the quarterly newsletter for American Deacons.
When I was called to be a deacon, the calling upended my life completely. I quit my former career of being an international flight attendant for 10 years and started a completely new one. Not only was I being called to be a deacon, but a registered nurse as well.
When I was first called to the diaconate and to nursing, I assumed it would always be the Church calling that would demand most of my time and attention. I have only been ordained two years, and neither I, or any of us could have known pandemic was to come, and what it would ask of us. In non-COVID times I work as a Cardiac Telemetry RN on the night shift in a suburban hospital (500 beds) right outside of Philadelphia.
However, during the height of the crisis I worked on a COVID stepdown and Progressive Care Unit (PCU). We took care of patients in all stages of the illness up to the point of requiring intubation and a ventilator to breathe for them, or their death. Before this pandemic started, I had only lost two patients in my career; within a matter of two weeks I had lost 10; the unit and the hospital of course had lost much more. These deaths were difficult for a number of reasons: one was that because COVID admissions were longer than regular admissions, we got to know our patients well; and since we were the few human-to-human interactions they had in their final days they came to rely on us. Another factor that made these deaths more difficult than the previous deaths I had experienced was that these patients were alone during the entire process. And, because we were trying to do everything to save them, instead of moving them to hospice when things started turning for the worse, the suffering we inflicted on patients trying to get their lungs to open up was awful to witness.
Alone, suffering, and near death, the terror in some of their eyes cannot be wiped from my memory. At its peak, nurses were often the only personnel who would go into rooms. Nurses drew all the labs, we were the janitors, we delivered all the food, for a while we were also doing respiratory treatments. On top of that we were the only persons, along with Nursing Assistants (CNAs), to touch the patients during their hospitalization. We were the ones to set up conference calls for Last Rites and for family meetings, including those family meetings in which the family was to say goodbye to their loved one. And when the last labored breaths were gone, we were the ones who cared for the bodies as we placed them in specially labeled body bags.
For my fellow nurses who were ultimately responsible for the care and advocacy of these patients, we have experienced collective trauma. In our personal lives, the pandemic was not much easier. Because we had seen that this virus can be fatal to younger persons with no prior medical history; because within a week of receiving COVID patients we were already intubating our own young nurses who had contracted this virus; because of this we had the added stress of not only catching it ourselves, but spreading at home to people we love. For the first two weeks, my husband moved out of the apartment. After I tested negative, we lived together again but slept and dwelled in different rooms. It was an odd time: my experience was that during this time my patients were the only persons I had human contact with; and the nurses were the only persons patients had human contact with…which made it difficult when many of our patients would die or needed intubation. As the dust settles, now comes the time for reflection. For many us we find ourselves sitting in ashes, and that is a healthy place to be given what we have been through this past year. But what can the Church do with this? As I write this in May, I can say with a bit of sadness that I do not think the Church in the near future has much to offer nurses or first responders without the intention of building long-term relationships. The Church, unintentionally, has abandoned those in the service industry and those working night shift for decades now. And I fear even if the Church wanted to help, most of us who work on this side would not know what to do with Church people. However, offering food is a small and yet meaningful way for parishes to show their care and support for their local first responders and hospital staff.
What I am trying to do as a deacon in the trenches is build up relationships between our chaplains and our staff, so that nurses know the spiritual resources available to them and to our patients. The chaplains at our hospital have done a fantastic job at trying to build relationships with us, even when there have been some barriers to this. To be honest when they first asked me how I was doing, I did not know what to do with them (and I am ordained!?!). So if you are a chaplain in a hospital know that a barrier to “being there” for an RN is that people only ever approach us in relation to our patients; they never approach us for us … it takes some time to get used to, so be patient with us. But within the hospitals I think that chaplaincy focusing on caring for nurses, including trying to start spiritual support groups is a good idea.
May the Spirit lead us in this; but know that the trauma nurses have is very real… so keep it on your radar. Also, keep families who lost loved ones on your radar. The grieving process has obviously been complicated with them, and they will need love and support. Another thing I want to emphasize that every parish can do is push for Advanced Directives to be made. One of the worst things to witness in this crisis, and at all times, is when a family has no idea what a loved one wants when a terminal diagnosis/prognosis is given, and the patient cannot speak for themselves. So instead of a peaceful death process, we have death processes with needles, gasping for air, compressions, shattered ribs, and tubes being stuck in every orifice. I do apologize for being graphic, but I want to get the point across: resuscitation and aggressive interventions are messy and painful. We really need to have conversations about what type of care we want, and every adult above 18 should have an Advanced Directive. Having that conversation and document can save the patient, the family, and the medical staff a lot of trauma. Creating an Advanced Directive is an act of love and mercy to those you love.
For now, I continue my work as a deacon in the hospital. Because of my consistent exposure to COVID+ patients, I don’t know when I will be able to return to in-person worship. But I do know whether in the Church or in the world, as deacons we go to the darkest places with the Light of Christ and declare “even here Christ is Risen!” And indeed, that is what I intend to do. Peace be with you all in your missions and in bearing this Light to the Church and the World!