A nurse drives home after a grueling 12 hour shift, thinking through tears about the many young, relatively healthy people who are dying alone; about family members unable to assist or speak with parents, spouses, siblings and children before their swift, unexpected death. “I feel defeated,” she writes, “helpless because we are working so hard, trying every treatment modality that we can, and patients are still dying.”
A patient’s oxygen levels drop catastrophically low. Without taking the time to pull on full personal protective equipment, a doctor rushes in to insert a breathing tube as the patient coughs up a deadly respiratory virus. Post procedure, the doctor is grateful he didn’t take time putting on all his PPE. Those precious moments helped save the patient, even if they endangered his life.
Emergency medicine physician, Halleh Akbarnia, recounts a covid-19 patient gasping for breath as he reassured his doctors, asking if they need anything. Mr. C. didn’t want to be on invasive life support, but he agreed to be intubated, telling Dr. Akbarnia, “I trust you and am putting myself in your hands.” Dr. Akbarnia writes: “I saw his eyes looking at me, seeing the kindness in them, even as we pushed the medications to put him to sleep.” Mr. C. nearly dies during the intubation as the team fights to keep him alive. Twelve days later, Mr. C. is recovering in the covid stepdown unit when Dr. Akbarnia visits and reminds her former patient of the night they met in the ER. Looking up at the doctor’s masked face, Mr. C. begins to cry. “I remember your eyes,” he says.
Every day, stories of heroism and heartbreak are shared by health care workers on the front lines of this brutal pandemic. We mourn with stunned and devastated families that are unable to bury or celebrate their loved ones at funerals or memorial services. We marvel as National Guard service members go door to door in Manhattan, consoling the living as they collect the bodies of the dead.
The scourge of Covid -19 is unfathomable. Could we ever have imagined witnessing a plague during Passover, and countless acts of sacrifice throughout Holy Week? Collectively, throughout the world, we who worship will forgo religious services this sacred weekend. Yet there isn’t a book, text, reading, gospel or sermon that could more profoundly illustrate the tenets of faith we commemorate and celebrate than the stories we are reading, hearing, and experiencing…. moment by day by week.
It reminds me of a sermon I heard on Holy Thursday years ago. A priest I had never seen stepped beside the altar to preach. His accent was heavy, his voice slight, and I strained to hear and comprehend his words. A missionary, he recounted seeking and aiding the poor throughout the world. Haltingly, he read the gospel, then asked each of us to imagine the Lord washing our feet. Instinctively, I cringed. Fully empathizing with Peter’s protest to the Lord, “You shall never wash my feet!”, I always sat in the pew farthest from the altar during the symbolic recreation of the Last Supper, ducking any obligation to participate.
Truth is, I was always more comfortable on the ‘Serve’ side of the bleachers, rather than the ‘Be Served’ side.
My discomfort turned to tears as I understood the full impact of the missionary’s words and wisdom. “You are seated on a stool. Jesus is kneeling beside you, washing your feet. Imagine!” he called out above the silence. “You look down at this person serving you, and you are looking into the face of God.”
Serving. Being served.
Loving. Accepting love.
Aiding the vulnerable. Allowing ourselves to be vulnerable and aided.
This Holy week, and for the duration of the pandemic, we’ll continue to witness and participate in acts of love and mercy that could fill volumes of religious texts, readings and sermons. Love - in life and through death - will resound far beyond all houses of worship.
A random agent of death has swept across continents and inspired the sermon of the season: There’s only one set of bleachers and we’re all on the same side.
Those of us who are served will surely remember the eyes.
Of all who serve.
And vice versa.
“I trust you and am putting myself in your hands.” Holy words from a patient to a doctor that lift and inspire this holy weekend.
Looking to each other, serving one another, we are seeing the face of God.