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‘A praying Christian presence’ intercedes silently on the Covid-19 wards

01 May 2020

‘Knowing there is a Supreme Being is such a comfort’

Picture courtesy Lancashire Post

The Revd Dr Susan Salt outside Blackpool Victoria Hospital

The Revd Dr Susan Salt outside Blackpool Victoria Hospital

CHRISTIAN doctors and nurses have described how their faith has helped them through the fear, anxiety, and physical toil of working on the NHS frontline during the coronavirus crisis. Many have prayed, and asked for prayers, for patients’ healing and for staff to cope with the challenges.

The latest report from the Office of National Statistics (ONS) states that, by the week ending 17 April, more than 22,000 people in the UK had died owing to the coronavirus — 14,796 of whom died in hospital. Almost 40 per cent of all registered deaths that same week involved Covid-19, up from 33 per cent in the previous week. These figures are higher than those reported by the Government.

A surgical registrar at King’s College Hospital, in London, said on Tuesday: “Being in hospital is a frightening prospect in the best of times. The virus means that patients are not allowed visitors; this is felt particularly acutely both by vulnerable patients and their relatives who are often isolated at home.

“Speaking to the elderly wife of a patient, the fear and desperation was palpable in her voice as I told her that her husband had tested positive for the virus during his recovery from major surgery. She told me this was the longest they’d been apart in 60 years of marriage. I found myself praying for them both, praying that her husband would survive and come home to her.”

But there were also positive moments, she said. “Health-care workers from different backgrounds are pulling together, moving to different areas; there are paediatric teams looking after adult patients without complaint. Morale is good, and there is a feeling that we are more cohesive. I am hopeful that this will carry into brighter times.”

A staff nurse in endoscopy at King’s, Arianne Remulta, said: “Knowing there is a Supreme Being is such a comfort. I feel it lifts the burden from patients knowing there is a higher being in control. I regularly silently pray for patients; I don’t like to assume they have a faith, but, if they are in distress, I will say ‘Be healed’ and I can feel the Holy Spirit working through me.”

Another staff nurse, Kamille, said: “I pray for psychological help in difficult times, so that I may have strength to care for patients.”

A doctor in Sheffield who is specialising in histopathology said on Wednesday that her postgraduate exam had been cancelled 10 days before. “This felt like a major career set back when it happened, but God is helping me to see it as inconsequential when compared to the challenges being faced by so many.”

She has been redeployed to a virology lab to help with the increased workload owing to Covid-19. This involves calling staff to confirm positive Covid-19 test results. “It is easy to treat each phone call like another box to tick on a list of jobs, but my faith reminds me each person I speak to is created in the image of God with complex feelings and emotions and I try to treat them with gentleness and compassion.”

She is encouraged to attend educational-video conferences about the status and statistics in her hospital and to learn from findings in other hospitals. “These, much like the constant news, can fill me with anxiety and fear when I consider the impact this pandemic is having the world over. . .

“In these moments I am grateful for a God who is a comforter and who offers to take my burdens. Jesus made a way for humanity, by his incredible and undeserved grace, to know that this earth is only our temporary home; and that gives me comfort when considering my own mortality.

“My faith keeps me from spiralling into hopelessness, and studying Romans with my church small group via video link each week is a beautiful reminder that our hope is in Jesus and his death and resurrection.”

A minute’s silence was held at 11 a.m. on International Workers’ Memorial Day, on Tuesday, to remember people who had lost their lives at work, particularly health workers who have died after contracting coronavirus.

The Revd Dr Pauline Pearson, who is an emeritus professor of the Department of Nursing, Midwifery, and Health at Northumbria University and the journal editor at CHRISM (Christians in Secular Ministry), said on Tuesday: “The pandemic is impacting people working in health and social care in many ways, including ministers in secular employment.”

Adrian, an ordinand and the lead clinician for Covid-19 in a GP surgery in Wales, said that the experience had been a “wilderness” of prayer and worry about staff, patients, the NHS, and how to respond to each new circumstance.

It had also revealed a lack of spiritual provision, he said. “The spiritual support for patients and staff is seemingly non-existent outside of what I am doing. Yes, normal parish priests and pastors of other churches are continuing to do their work, but there is nothing from the ‘official’ channels of the chaplaincy, or the Church itself.”

A hospital pharmacist and an assistant curate in London, Bryony, said that, like many others, she has had to balance the needs of her parish, her NHS post, and home-schooling her children.

“At a time when things have slowed down a bit for some people, I feel as though I am busier than I have ever been. I am focusing on remaining mindful of the need to take time out with God to process what is going on, remain rooted in loving and serving God, and to remember that I can’t take care of anyone else if I don’t take care of myself, too.” The most important part of her work was listening, she said.

In March last year, after a 30-year career in medicine, the Revd Dr Susan Salt resigned from her post in palliative medicine, voluntarily removed her name from the General Medical Register, and was ordained deacon in Blackburn Cathedral in June (Gazette, 5 July 2019).

A year later, at the start of the coronavirus outbreak in the UK, when the Government asked medics to return to frontline health care, she answered the call (News, 6 March). Dr Salt, who is on the coronavirus task group for the diocese, returned to her post at Blackpool Victoria Hospital.

She reflected in an article on the Church Times website this week: “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.”

But NHS key workers should not be lauded as invincible saviours, she said. “The narrative suggests that key workers are engaging with a frontline which 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 is a narrative that 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 of either the patient’s having ‘given up’ or the health-care team’s 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.”

On Saturday, 750 Christian doctors, nurses, and other allied health professionals took part in an online video conference organised by the Christian Medical Fellowship (CMF). The theme of the conference — “How long Lord? Finding hope in Christ when the storm clouds gather” — was adapted to address the present crisis.

Christian medics take part in a video conference on finding hope during the pandemic, organised by the Christian Medical Fellowship on Saturday

The CMF has 5000 members, most of whom work on the frontline of the NHS. The chief executive, Dr Mark Pickering, said: “At a time of turbulence, it was incredibly encouraging to come together with Christians in health care from all across the UK and the world. We were reminded from Habakkuk that questioning the God we trust is not sin, but an assurance that he has the answers that we lack. The term ‘defiant joy’ summed up the message, and will remain with me.

“Testimonies from doctors and nurses on the frontline were wonderful illustrations of how God is working in so many lives, despite the challenges. . . Our goal is that no Christian should be alone in the NHS, that every NHS workplace should have a praying Christian presence.”

One member, an A&E doctor, said afterwards that his faith was “central” to how he interacted with patients and colleagues. “It’s actually much easier to connect with people at the moment. People are feeling vulnerable — people are scared — but it means they are opening up a lot more. In terms of how my faith is affecting me, I think it is just an amazing reminder that, as Christians, we know that this world is not our home, and that we are just passing through. . . This is my hope. This is why I’m not panicking and I’m not terribly afraid of what’s going to happen.”

He described the current situation in A&E as “a weird dichotomy of both a mounting crisis and the calm before the storm. On the one hand, we have more sick patients than normal. The ‘resus’ [resuscitation] is overflowing with people who are very unwell. Every day we are seeing two or three patients being put on ventilators and going up to ITU.

“On the other hand, in many ways this is actually a quiet time to be an A&E doctor. Many patients are afraid because of the coronavirus quarantine happening, which means we are actually getting a lot fewer patients coming to A&E than we would do normally, and we have some quiet hours.”

An ITU nurse spoke of the “dark side” of personal protective equipment (PPE), which he said had changed the way he and his colleagues interacted with patients day to day. “When you wear a tight mask around your face, a hat, a face shield, a gown, two pairs of gloves, and something to protect your shoes, it is a totally different thing; and, as nurses, you have to stay in that side room or unit for 12-and-a-half hours.

“It is really draining physically. You feel hypoxic because you can’t really breathe normally; you are sweating, and you can’t even go to the loo because your patients are terribly sick. They are on maximum [life support]; so you can’t take your eyes off that monitor.”

He said that, during a recent three-night shift, he thought of Matthew 6.34. “I was apprehensive and a bit scared, but the word of God came to my mind — where Jesus says that you shouldn’t be anxious about tomorrow because tomorrow has its own worry. What we have to do is be the best that we can be — help the needy, help the vulnerable.”

He continued: “Pray for us, that we have strength and wisdom from above to deal with these situations, because it is really challenging.”

A medical registrar said: “We need real wisdom to be able to work well together. We need grace to be kind to each other and look after each other. I’m certainly aware that there are a lot of anxious colleagues; so we need to be caring for them as well as for our patients, and helping people who are really struggling through this.”

How Christians behaved at work was an opportunity to bear witness to Christ, he said. He prayed that his God-given confidence was conveyed to people facing illness, and even death.

Parish Nursing Ministries appoints new chiefs. A former charity worker, Sue Bretherick, has been appointed to be the next chief executive of Parish Nursing Ministries UK. A district nurse and practice tutor at the Open University, Anne Taylor, has been appointed to be the next director of nursing. The current chief executive, Ros Moore, and the founder director, Helen Wordsworth, are due to step down at the end of the month to pursue other work.

A statement from the organisation said: “In these pandemic times, Parish Nurses around the UK have been busier than ever, using phone and internet facilities to answer questions on health issues, refer on where necessary, check that all their service users are well supplied with food and other essentials, and provide spiritual care.”

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