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Returning to Serve

May 8, 2020 by

healthcare workers

In early March as Covid-19 was heating up in New York City where we live, my wife Kathleen and I decided to self-quarantine even before it was required: we both have a history of asthma so it seemed prudent. We didn’t realize that we were actually entering a time of rest before jumping into the storm.

Only a few days later I wondered about the flu-like aches I was having – and then the chills and fever. I got a test, the fevers increased and then the news: positive for Covid-19. My mind raced to where I might have picked it up – I had been so careful – but soon gave up those useless thoughts and began to worry about what would happen to us. Although my symptoms were limited and short-lived, there were a few nights when I fell asleep in a mix of fear and prayer. Kathleen, who we presume also had it, got away with even lighter symptoms.

During our recovery we watched the news with great interest. It felt funny to be on the other side of the story, a statistic. Like many, we found ways to enjoy aspects of our seclusion: reading books we hadn’t been getting to, watching movies, listening to funny songs and sharing around cool videos about isolation. But after a while we got profoundly restless.

Although I have not practiced in years, I’ve kept my nursing license current. The call to serve grew increasingly louder, and thousands of health care professionals who had none of the immunity I supposedly now had were selflessly braving the storm; they needed help. How could I just sit in comfort waiting until it was safe to come out? One news story in particular caught my eye. In the heart of our city, Samaritan’s Purse had set up a field hospital. Well known for their rapid response to disaster areas all over the world, the distinctive array of their white tents, complete with staff, was visible in the USA for the first time – in Central Park, only a short bike ride from our house in Harlem. I was finished with shelter-in-place. It was time for the trenches.

Three days later, I was biking down 7th Avenue on the best day of the year for me by far. I was completely free of isolation and on my way to join an army in the war. The first step was the introduction to the PPE, Personal Protection Equipment, and what an ordeal that was. After changing into scrubs, we donned rubber wellies, put on a complete yellow “bunny suit”, two pairs of gloves, the now much-publicized N95 mask, head cover, and finally full-face shield. Feeling like a space explorer I entered the “hot zone” and unzipped a tent door. To my right and left were two rows of low beds, essentially cots, each one occupied. Some patients were lying still, some sitting up and coughing, all with various oxygen delivery supplies. As I leaned close, I was overcome with emotion. The virus on which the whole world was now focused, which filled the news and our fears and dictated all our actions was now all around me. Tears formed, but I pulled myself together. Here was a man who needed a drink: it had to be quick – in the few seconds he could cope without the oxygen mask over his mouth. Here was one who had slid too low in bed and needed repositioning, and over there someone seemed frightened – he needed to talk. There were no aides in our workforce, so nurses performed all the tasks with doctors joining in as they managed. There always seemed to be urinals and commodes to empty, and I threw myself into the assignment of taking each one outside the tent to the crude but effective emptying and sterilizing station. I was thrilled to be doing anything after sitting around so long.

 You can see our night’s work in this video

Soon a strange thought occurred to me. Here I had an advantage that very few people had – I was completely free from all fear of Covid! My protective gear and supposed immunity was only part it. The love that impelled my actions completely freed me from any fear. Ironically, in this place we were free to hold hands and to hug, just where it was most needed. I used my own story to encourage some. “You’ll get through it like I did,” I’d say.

Not that everything was exhilarating, oh no. Because of the time and expense of changing in and out of PPE most of us went with only one break in the twelve-plus hour shift. We couldn’t eat or drink or use a restroom inside the hot zone. Finally, break also included a scamper through the cold, often wet night to the warm staff tents.

Samaritan's Purse field hospital from the airPhoto credit: Tatiana Somers

Often it was sheer commitment to the task at hand, and the knowledge that my church and other friends were praying for me that kept me going. Texts would arrive at night reminding me of this support (Our phones had to be enclosed in plastic bags.).

The work ranged from encouraging experiences to really tough ones. Some wards were full of people who would be fine and just needed some encouragement. I got to walk some recovered patients out to waiting cabs. But I also helped move out body bags and held the hand of a man as he died, praying for his forgiveness and welcome into the Kingdom. Samaritan’s Purse sometimes made the rare move of allowing family members visit, dressed in PPE of course. Once I entered the ICU just in time to join a circle of nurses and one family member around a dying man. I could see two daughters on a phone’s split screen, tearfully bidding their father farewell. The third daughter was with us and held the phone until she collapsed in grief.

It was really tough to watch some struggle for days behind CPAP masks, which are difficult to wear. Some lost the battle after all that, giving me a harsh mental picture for the words “died of Covid” whenever I hear them now. Others turned the corner.

Often it was sheer commitment to the task at hand, and the knowledge that my church and other friends were praying for me that kept me going. Working with staff who all had faith created a health care environment that I’d never experienced. At times we prayed with patients at their request; sometimes before significant lifesaving procedures or when all else seemed to be failing; the doctors would step out of their professional roles and offer a heartfelt prayer, with anyone around joining in. Sometimes encouraging words of faith would come in via text, and it was completely natural to stop work briefly and gather to share it with all in the ward.

We had all signed up for a minimum three-week commitment, typically with no days off. One week into that period we literally were relying on strength from outside ourselves. Before starting each shift, a staff member held a brief devotion and prayer. Hearing well-known Gospel words in this context gave them new meaning for me and made me feel part of an age-old missionary team.

This has been life changing for me, in ways that I probably don’t realize yet. The world I cycled through on my commute with sounds of petty arguments, worried looks and acts of social distancing seemed completely different from the one I now lived in. Maybe in a strange way I was getting a taste of the world we are all heading to when this passes. One where there is no fear and where masks don’t cover up love.

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About the author

Tim, a member of the Bruderhof, an intentional Christian community

Tim Maendel

Tim Maendel lives at the Bruderhof house in Harlem, NY where he and his wife are house parents to a number of college...

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