IN MARCH last year, after a 30-year career in medicine, I resigned from my post in palliative medicine, voluntarily removed my name from the General Medical Register, and was ordained deacon in Blackburn Cathedral at the end of June of the same year.
Having wrestled for some time with God’s call to leave medicine behind and become a full-time stipendiary assistant curate, I never imagined that, last month, I would find myself back on the Medical Register and returning to the hospital trust which I had left only 12 months previously.
Making the decision to return to medicine was not easy: it meant leaving my curacy in five rural parishes and self-isolating from my family to reduce the risk to them. Returning to the trust in which I had previously worked also meant negotiating the challenge of re-engaging with colleagues who knew me as a doctor who was going to get ordained, now that I was a deacon who happened to be a doctor.
Returning to frontline health care has, on one level, been straightforward. The computer system is as cranky as it always was; colleagues have welcomed me with open arms; and it has been reassuring to walk familiar corridors, even if all the wards have changed their function. I have found myself drawing on both my pastoral and medical experience to be a listening ear to staff and patients, as all of us navigate the impact of this pandemic.
It has been a profoundly humbling and exhausting experience, which continues to challenge and inspire in equal measure.
FINDING ways to reflect on the current situation is incredibly difficult. The national narrative is framed around the metaphor of battle: those on the front line are spoken of as “heroes” who, if they have sufficient resources and courage, will defeat the unseen enemy.
The narrative suggests that key workers are engaging with a frontline that is somehow distant from the rest of the community. It portrays those key workers as invincible saviours who, even though stretched to the limit, will ultimately triumph. It implies that, with enough research and pooling of knowledge, we will defeat the virus, and regain a sense of certainty about the world and our place in it.
It is a narrative which has long been applied to cancer and other chronic illnesses, with the consequence that, when death comes (as it will), it is seen as a defeat and the result either of the patient having “given up”, or the health-care team not “doing enough”.
The reality is different. There are no winners or losers. There is no frontline far away from our communities — just common sense, and people taking responsibility in following the guidance on hand washing and social distancing.
A less attractive but more realistic metaphor is one of exilic journey: a whole community journeying together, uncertain about when or where the journey will end — a journey on which all are equally vulnerable, all are dependent on each other and on God; a journey where there is real fear and anxiety: fear of falling ill; fear of not being strong enough to cope with the lockdown; fear of being judged and found wanting by others for not caring enough. The fear of death and dying is tangible.
This unprecedented pandemic is being played out in the glare of social media. Even the most experienced physicians and nurses are taking one day at a time, and are adapting minute by minute, as they do not know what will happen next.
Sitting with someone who is scared, breathless, and dying is incredibly difficult, no matter who you are. Many people in every community have witnessed significant and overwhelming trauma — some multiple times. It is important that each community does not rush to forget this challenging time of “lament” and start to look too soon for good-news stories, and lose the reality of the pain and struggle experienced by so many, from those who have been bereaved to those who have lost their sense of certainty.
THERE is a need to find new responses which enable communities to engage with the reality of the suffering that all have lived with, and the randomness of tragedy, both lived with and witnessed from a distance.
The need to create spaces in which people feel safe enough to speak of their vulnerability and the reality of their experiences will be essential as each community finds a new way to be, in the light of the pandemic.
There will also be a need to find new liturgies that enable lament to be heard, as well as a clear theological approach to trauma, along with ways of developing and maintaining resilience.
The Revd Dr Susan Salt is an Assistant Curate in the Fellside Team Ministry, in the diocese of Blackburn.