'Mourning In Isolation': Chaplain Tries To Comfort Families Of COVID-19 Patients

Apr 10, 2020
Originally published on April 10, 2020 3:26 pm

During the coronavirus pandemic, many hospitals have restricted family visits because the risk of infection is just too high.

For many families, the only connection they have to a loved one in their final moments in the ICU is through a hospital chaplain.

As New York City experiences a staggering loss of life this week, Rocky Walker, a chaplain at Mount Sinai Hospital in Manhattan, has been working outside the shut doors of patient rooms. There, while on the phone or video chat with a patient's family member, he'll describe what he's seeing in the room.

In the final stages of the disease, he says, the patient is incapacitated, Walker says. So, he's there more for the family.

"I spend a lot of time trying to make sense of things that just don't make sense: The fact that you can't be next to your loved one, the fact that so many of our patients that are dying — their family members are recovering from COVID, so they're actually mourning in isolation because no one can be around them," Walker, speaking from Mount Sinai's intensive care unit, told Morning Edition.

The following are excerpted from the interview, which you can listen to in full at the audio link above.

On his job as a hospital chaplain

How do I help a father tell his children, his young children, their mother isn't coming back and walking them through that? How do I help a nurse who is new to nursing and has walked into all this death and it's nothing that she had ever imagined? ...This is very hard because this is personal. No patient is a number. And this is a very good hospital. ... Our patients usually live. And to have so many of our patients not making it — it's even hard on the seasoned doctors.

On how he's using video chat to help families connect with their dying loved ones

We try to get the cameras in the rooms with the family members. But that itself is a big logistical undertaking and it literally pulls the nursing staff away from critical duties. So we can only do that on a limited basis. I have more time than anyone else on the medical team, so I have personally taken my phone that you're calling me on and I will stand outside the door and I will FaceTime with families and just let them look. That's better than nothing.

On finding comfort in a passage from Psalm 91

The part that I find the most comforting is when it says that "This plague will not come near you. His angels will bear you up so that you don't even dash your foot against a stone." And I'm living that. I'm not reading that, I'm living that. And it's both beautiful, and it's also difficult. It's like, "Wow, God, thank you for protecting me." But why me? ... I'm thankful, but my heart just cries for those who are falling to this thing. My heart cries for it.

Ashley Westerman produced this story for broadcast. Emma Bowman adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

When patients with the coronavirus disease die, they often die alone. There's no one there to hold their hand or to tell them in person how much they'll be missed. That's because many hospitals have restricted family visits. The risk of infection is just too high. And so for many families, the only connection they have to a loved one in their final moments is to a hospital chaplain. As New York City experiences a staggering loss of life this week, we bring you the voice of one of those chaplains. His name is Rocky Walker.

ROCKY WALKER: Right now, I am at the nurse's station here at Mount Sinai Hospital. This is an ICU. And I - from where I'm sitting, I can see about eight rooms. The doors are shut, of course, on each of the rooms. The doors have windows. You can look into the windows.

GREENE: Those windows of patient rooms are where Walker does his work these days. He'll stand there on the phone or video chat with a family member, describing what he's seeing in the room. Sometimes, he'll show the family by taking video. He says by this stage of the disease, he's there more for the family.

WALKER: For the patient. My role is nonexistent in their final hours because the way this virus works, they have been incapacitated usually for at least a day or two before they - before it's the end. However, my role is very active in the lives of their family members. I am first expressing condolences, second trying to normalize their feelings of grief. And then thirdly, I spend a lot of time trying to make sense of things that just don't make sense - the fact that you can't be next to your loved one, the fact that so many of our patients that are dying - their family members are recovering from COVID, so they're actually mourning in isolation because no one can be around them - and having to normalize that or comfort and console them in that time.

How do I help a father tell his children, his young children their mother isn't coming back and walking them through that? How do I help a nurse who is new to nursing and has walked into all this death that is nothing that she had ever imagined? And they're walking right into it. So it a lot of all of the above. Even seasoned doctors - this is very hard because it's personal. We - no patient is a number. Every patient is personal. And this is a very good hospital. We spoil ourselves. We - our patients usually live. And to have so many of our patients not making it - it's even hard on the seasoned doctors.

GREENE: So when you're - I mean, family members are not allowed into the hospitals now, right? So how are you - like, where are you standing when it comes to their loved one who is dying? And how are you helping them - the families?

WALKER: We - that's really difficult. We try to do Zoom conferences. We try to get the cameras in the rooms with the family members. But that itself is a big logistical undertaking. And it literally pulls the nursing staff away from critical duty. So we can only do that on a limited basis. I have more time than anyone else on the on the medical team. So I have personally taken my phone that you're calling me on, and I will stand outside the door, and I will FaceTime with families and just let them look. That's better than nothing. So it's really being as creative as we possibly can to try to figure out how to fill that void of family members not being here. And the biggest thing we do is just keep the families informed.

GREENE: Chaplain, I'm just going to make this guess about you. I bet when you are doing your job, and it's not this coronavirus, there's a lot of handholding and hugging that goes on with people who are dying and their families.

WALKER: That's a really good guess. There is a lot of that. Physical touch, hugging - that goes a long way. One of the things about this job is, sometimes, there's no words. Many times, there are no words. Well, this time, all we have is words. And so it's different. It's different. But I have to tell you the family members - almost all of them have been amazing in their grace and their understanding in the middle of this terrible, terrible situation. And it is much worse for them than it is for us. They've shown incredible gratitude. And you have no idea how many times they stop grieving just to thank us. Yeah, it's - you know, there's - it's hard not being able to hug or hold hands or just put your arm around somebody.

GREENE: Is there a single family's loss from recent days or something you went through that you just can't shake?

WALKER: The hardest thing for me did not happen in the hospital. I'm not originally from New York. I'm from Kansas City. I've been in New York for 16 years. And I had two guys from my church that - we were just like brothers. And one of my brothers - one of these brothers - he and his wife were hospitalized with COVID-19. And I didn't even know about it. I just haven't had time to check my emails. He called me last week very happy to tell me he had gone home from the hospital. Of course, I was stunned. I didn't know he was in the hospital. He also called me to tell me that his wife was doing better. So I'm like, wow, that's so great. I didn't even know that they were in a hospital, but that's great. He's home, and she's getting better.

And that was on Sunday. And on Tuesday, his wife had died. And that brought everything that I'm seeing at work home for me. And I'm seeing that a lot. I'm seeing husband and wife at work. One dies. One lives. You know, I'm - you know, it's - but that made it very personal. I know we're going to win this. We're going to win COVID. But for those who don't make it through, those families are changed forever. And that, more than anything, has brought it home for me and made it very hard to go back to work.

GREENE: I can't imagine. I - as you go through all this, I mean, is there like a prayer that helps you deal with, you know, your friend's loss, all the loss you're seeing in the hospital, all of this?

WALKER: There's several prayers. The one that I go to and I use the most when I'm talking to other people is the Serenity Prayer. What I speak to myself every day - my daughter, my sister and I - we read Psalms 91 every single day. And, you know, there's a lot of application to that here. And if you know it - I don't believe that people who are dying from this, they're being - they're the wicked, and they're being punished. That part I don't. But there's a lot of application to the protection, keeping safe. And for me, it's very comforting to - just to recite Psalms 91. It's the same thing I did when I was in war. I'm a former soldier. And I - when I went to war in the Persian Gulf, my mother gave me that verse to read every day, that chapter. And I read it every day then. So...

GREENE: Yeah, I mean, you are a 25-year Army veteran. Some people say that the situation feels like war right now in these hospitals. Do you see it that way?

WALKER: Absolutely, absolutely. The - not the threat but the response to the threat. When I see my colleagues who are not calling in sick, but they're coming to work every day - I see the team members go in and out of these rooms - it is - it's the same muscles that I used when we were racing across the desert, trying to find an enemy that was trying to kill us. That's not natural - to run towards something that you know is trying to kill you. And those muscles that we used racing across the desert looking for Saddam Hussein and the Republican Guard are the same muscles that my colleagues are using today coming in to Mount Sinai Hospital, knowing that all the patients here or most of the patients here have the virus, and they need our help. And I'm very proud to be a part of this unit, as proud as I am to be a part of the first infrantry division that I fought in Desert Storm with.

GREENE: Before we go, is there any of Psalm 91 that you know and could recite a bit to us, so we get a sense of what that is and if there are people out there who might want to feel a little bit of comfort?

WALKER: So the part that I find the most comforting is when it says that this plague will not come near you. His angels will bear you up so that you don't even dash your foot against the stone. And that has - that is - I'm living that. I'm not reading that. I'm living that. And it's both beautiful, and it's also difficult. It's like, wow, God, thank you for protecting me, but why me? And I got to be honest with you - I ask myself that. I'm thankful. And I don't - you know? But I - my heart just cries for those who are falling to this thing. My heart cries for it.

GREENE: Rocky Walker, thank you so, so much for talking to us.

WALKER: Thank you so much.

GREENE: That was hospital chaplain Rocky Walker. He was talking to us from the intensive care unit of Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City.

(CROSSTALK) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.