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NYC hospital chaplains are adapting to grim new coronavirus reality

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Read The Latest Coronavirus News Updates Globally Here: "Coronavirus Live News Updates" | Or Visit Our Full Global Statistics Page for Detailed Informations On Coronavirus Here

Armed with prayer books and face masks, New York City hospital chaplains are adapting to their new normal during the coronavirus crisis — “more death” than they have ever seen, and the grim realization that the worst is yet to come.

Isolation units are taking over the normally bustling hospital lobbies and waiting rooms, turning them into veritable “ghost towns.”

“The COVID-19 positive cases just continue to be admitted and consume the hospital,” said Father John Maria Devaney, a Dominican friar and chaplain from the New York Archdiocese. “And the numbers are only going to grow. We all know this.”

Two weeks ago, Devaney met his first COVID-19 patient in the ICU.

“Between the glass and me was the reality of this virus traveling the world in this poor woman sedated in the ICU behind glass on tubes and in all likelihood going to die from this,” said Devaney. “I went by her room several times a day. A week later, she was gone. I’ll never forget her face.”

The sheer terror in the eyes of patients is apparent, says Father Ferdinand Makadi, a chaplain at Montefiore Medical Center. One of the patients he visits told him that she is frightened of dying without seeing her grandkids grow up.

Every day, Chaplain Rocky Walker delivers the last words of patients dying alone in glass rooms at Mt. Sinai Hospital to separated spouses, friends and relatives. Near the end, most patients can’t communicate.

The pandemic has hospital chaplains doing double duty as life lines to families that are waiting anxiously by the phone frustrated for an update. Under normal circumstances they would be at the bedside. Instead COVID-19 patients suffer completely alone.

The only chaplains that cross the threshold of a patient’s door are the ones sent by the Catholic Archdiocese of New York.

They get as close as they can to hear a confession and make eye contact. Two of their hospital chaplains are in self quarantine after showing symptoms.

When they can get the full PPE – the gloves, surgical mask, N95 mask, face shield and full medical suit – they anoint the sick and give holy communion. If patients are too weak to stick out their tongues, priests use spoons with some water to put the Eucharist wafers in their mouths.

The coronavirus is a fast mass killer even for emergency room doctors who already live in the daily reality of death. Kaylin Milazzo, a chaplain at NYU Langone Hospital, describes the scene on the front line as “very heavy.”

“I have never seen the day-to-day difference in patients move so quickly,” said Walker who only takes his face mask off at work to eat. “Within a couple of days that patient has expired. This is more death than we are used to seeing and the death is totally indiscriminate.”

Patients get test results by the next day. If they test positive for the coronavirus, they are moved to the isolation unit. Walker has seen the virus move so fast that after one day of isolation, patients are incubated, and die sooner after.

Medical personnel talk to chaplains, left, as they tour the Samaritan's Purse field hospital in Central Park.
Medical personnel talk to chaplains, left, as they tour the Samaritan’s Purse field hospital in Central Park.AP/Mary Altaffer

It makes him feel like he’s in a combat zone.

“It reminds me so much of the time I spent in Desert Storm,” said Walker, a 25-year army veteran who flew a helicopter behind enemy lines. “It’s not a natural thing to go toward the sound of a gun that’s trying to shoot you. That’s what health care workers are doing every day when they get out of bed and come into the hospital.”

Hospital staff are being reassigned from their familiar jobs to the isolation units with stringent infection control measures. Rabbi Hillel Fox at North Shore University Hospital says the staff fears what is unknown about the virus. From the doctors to the janitors, everyone in the hospital is on edge and resisting the temptation to call in sick.

“Am I putting myself and my family at risk when I come home,” said Fox. “I’ve had front line health care providers I have spoken to that are doing what they can and they pray ‘oh please God I live with my elderly parents and I don’t want to get them sick or I just got married. I don’t want to harm my newlywed wife.’”

The pain in hospital workers is visible, says Makadi. They are accustomed to saving lives. As they do everything they can, their patients are dying.

“A staff member was crying in the corner of her unit. I went over to her and I asked her, can I help you? What is happening,” said Makadi. “She lost someone in her family. She has the burden of family issues and work issues. They are so exhausted. I see the pain in them. They don’t get a break. Just work work work.”

The hours have gotten longer too. Rabbi Hillel Fox says he still starts his shift at 8 a.m., but now he doesn’t get home until 11 p.m. He must disrobe at the back door of his home, put his work clothes in the washing machine and go straight to the shower before he can see his family of nine.

“When I come home, my kids don’t run up to me to give me hugs anymore,” said Fox. “They kind of just keep their distance.”

A big hugger, Walker says he hasn’t put his arm around someone in three weeks. He is opening a room in Mt Sinai Hospital exclusively for staff to cry in or take a moment.

“It’s the calm before the storm,” said Devaney. “In three weeks, it will hit New York City like a tornado.”

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