By Jim Willsey
It’s Tuesday afternoon. Tomorrow I’ll be furloughed for the day, as the hospital has cancelled elective procedures to prepare for the COVID-19 surge predicted within the next two weeks. Even so, we are at over 85% capacity due to the already large number of coronavirus cases. Many of our staff are furloughed completely, working from home, or trying to file for unemployment benefits.
My chaplain schedule is more intentional now. I see immunocompromised patients first, for whom an infection would be almost certainly fatal. Next, patients who are PUIs. I had to learn that term, an acronym for “person under investigation” for being COVID-positive. Four weeks ago, that test result took three, four or more days to come back. Thank God the results are faster now.
I take off my jacket and leave it in the office. I don my N95 respirator and grab my face shield and prepare for visiting. I’ve already prayed for patients in the ICU, intubated and sedated, and in some cases called their families to let them know of the compassionate care they’re receiving, since we’ve restricted all visitation — except for one family member for those imminently dying.
Ending my day are the five COVID patients who want a visit or whose families have requested one. Next to last is an elderly woman with a history of dementia. Yesterday she opened her eyes but really wasn’t able to respond. Today her nurse reports she is more alert. I sanitize my hands, put on my gown, don the gloves, and also the mask and shield that I reuse because they are in short supply. I knock on the door and enter, calling her name as I do so.
I reintroduce myself, and she responds and tries to talk, but I can’t understand much of what she says because of the BiPAP mask on her face. I say that her daughters send their love. She brightens, and I ask if she would like to pray. She nods. Given her condition, I decide to keep it simple and pray the Our Father and Hail Mary. And she mouths many of the words along with me. At least I see her lips moving. I offer a blessing, remove my gloves, and say goodbye.
On to my last patient. He speaks Spanish. I wish I spoke it better. We visit, and I end with a prayer and leave. Done for the day. The elderly woman’s nurse and aide are just leaving her room. She stops me and says, “When we were in there, ‘Mary’ told me she had just prayed, and she was smiling.”
I’ve been a chaplain over thirty years. But it’s times like this when God graces me to know that I’ve made a difference that will get me back for Thursday’s rounds.
Jim Willsey is director of spiritual care at Roger Williams Medical Center in Providence, RI.