Each day as I made my way into the hospital, I had to pass through the tent at the one entrance that was not blocked, along with everyone else who came into the building. It was like something out of a disaster movie. Every time, the chorus of a song from Frozen 2 came to mind, and I could hear Elsa belting out, “Into the unknoooown …” The campus felt like a completely different place from just a couple of weeks prior. This was the tent where hospital concierges, who used to assist visitors in the now-deserted waiting areas, had to screen everyone coming in for symptoms of COVID-19. They were exposed to more people each day than pretty much anyone working there. The same changes that put them on the front lines left me feeling sidelined. Chaplains were being asked by medical staff to limit our visits only to those most urgent, so we wouldn’t be more potential carriers of the virus from one unit to another. With testing so limited and results so slow, we just couldn’t know for sure how many of our patients were contagious, and Personal Protective Equipment was being closely guarded, anticipating growing numbers of confirmed COVID-19 patients at some future time.
In late March and early April, more and more often I was told by nurses or doctors that I couldn’t go in to patient rooms where I was called, because the person was a PUI, Patient Under Investigation, meaning they met some criteria for virus exposure, even if we didn’t have test results for them. Sometimes that meant standing helplessly outside the door while I could hear a mother wailing for her dying child inside the room. Other times it meant having to tell the family waiting outside the hospital that I could pray for their loved one from outside the negative pressure door, but like them, I would not be allowed to hold his hand as he died. This was not the case for chaplains everywhere. My seminary classmate and friend Will Runyon is a hospital chaplain in Albany, Georgia, site of one of the worst COVID-19 death rates in the country. I knew that Will had been suiting up in PPE and holding the hands of affected patients, ministering directly to them, being there for them when their families couldn’t be. In the online chaplain groups I was part of, others argued that the only responsible way to do our job right now was tele-chaplaincy from home. I told one of my colleagues, “I don’t know how to be a chaplain during this thing.” And the next day, I was told that I wouldn’t have the choice to be one.
Without warning, I was called to my supervisor’s office and told that half the chaplains in our department, along with several hundred other hospital staff members, were being furloughed. I was stunned, and had a lot of questions. Why was I one of those chosen for furlough? Who else was being sent home? How long would it last? Did we have any guarantee of being brought back at all? We weren’t given answers. For the first time in almost twelve years, I left the hospital that night not knowing when, or even if, I would be back. It was hard to drive home through the tears. “Into the unknown” took on a whole new meaning.
The next few weeks were filled with anxiety, and many firsts. I slowly learned to navigate the state website to claim unemployment benefits. My stepsons’ school had closed, like so many others, and I did my best to help them with the assignments their teachers had sent home on paper and via a plethora of educational websites. Their spring break week arrived, and with our dream vacation to Walt Disney World put on hold indefinitely, I planned as many fun activities at home for them as I could. It wasn’t until the third week that the grief really hit me. Being a chaplain is a huge and important part of my identity. I do have this blog, a book, and a podcast about my being a chaplain! I started to wonder, what do I do when I can’t do that anymore, at least for now?
And the answer came, through a remembered conversation with a colleague before furlough, from another song in Frozen 2. My friend Lynn had told me, when I lamented to her that I didn’t know how to be a good chaplain in the days of COVID-19, to just do “The Next Right Thing.” So day by day, hour by hour sometimes, I’ve been trying to discern what the next right thing is and do it. Sometimes it has meant simply taking a walk instead of staying in the house all day. Sometimes it has meant staying up to date on the news; other times it has meant avoiding the news for a while. It has meant enjoying time with the kids, and laughing at my husband’s corny jokes. Sometimes the next right thing has been taking deep belly breaths when the anxiety hits, or doing other things that calm me, like singing or crocheting, and scheduling regular video sessions with my counselor.
Making sure I didn’t lose my pastoral care skills during this time off felt right, so I have been making time for continuing education each week through relevant books and online webinars. After years of dithering about it, I finally completed my application packet for the Board of Chaplaincy Certification, though writing those essays during these stressful times was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, and hopefully in the fall I can complete my interview before the committee and become a Board Certified Chaplain. Finding ways to help others has often been the next right thing, whether it’s making sure that everyone in my house has a mask to wear in public so that we won’t be as likely to spread the virus to those we meet, or sending care packages to loved ones having a rough time, or contributing what I can to organizations helping in situations on the news that leave me feeling helpless. To be honest, sometimes I haven’t been sure what the next right thing is, and that’s my cue that now is a good time not to do anything. Sometime in the near future, I will go back to work, and my prayer is that all this time away will have prepared me somehow for the challenges that surely await me there. The best and hardest lesson I think I’ve learned over the last sixteen weeks of furlough is that sometimes, the next right thing is just to be.