Rev. Andreas at Huron Lodge, Windsor
By Rev. Andreas Thiel
As the COVID-19 pandemic unfolded across our country in the early months of 2020, we began to hear numerous reports of coronavirus outbreaks in Long Term Care facilities.
Residents were succumbing to the virus at alarming rates and those of us who served as chaplains to these communities grew increasingly apprehensive. There was so much that we still did not fully understand about this deadly virus. But if the news reports were to be believed, every single Long Term Care facility was at risk; residents were at risk; staff members were at risk; we ourselves were at risk.
The following reflections offer snapshots of the situation as it unfolded in my place of chaplaincy, Huron Lodge, in Windsor Ontario.
I’m sitting at a computer station in the administrative wing. The usually placid atmosphere has been punctuated by a flurry of activity, as various administrators attend meetings in the boardroom.
I begin my shift by carefully reviewing the status of the 220 residents, as posted in nursing notes. There I will learn who might be most in need of my attention on this particular day.
The strain has been increasing in this place over the past week. Numerous memos (and revised memos) are shared among staff, reminding everyone of the importance of hand-washing. Regularly-scheduled recreational programs are reduced. (Note: as I review the entry I made in my desk diary for this particular day, the notation reminds of the urgency of those early weeks: Everything cancelled at Huron Lodge.)
I am in the final two weeks of my chaplaincy; the last day of my two-year contract will fall on March 31. I should be glad and relieved. But the more I consider the situation unfolding around me, it becomes clear that there is absolutely no way I could even consider stepping away.
The tension among staff is palpable. The usually vivacious administrator appears more strained these days. I know for a fact that she is working around the clock. The residents who are cognitively aware are just that: aware that something isn’t quite right. They have experienced flu outbreaks in the past, but they sense that this is something different. Everyone seems to want to talk about “the virus”.
I send an email to Bishop Todd: “I need to stay on as chaplain. May I have your blessing?” His immediate answer is just what I need to hear. A blessing. A prayer. A word of heartfelt encouragement.
In the midst of attending to the situation at hand, we often miss the fact that God is present at our side. In the recalling and reflecting, however, truth has a way of surfacing: yes, the Lord was present!
March 31 would come and go, allowing me the privilege of accompanying my Huron Lodge family through whatever was coming in the coming months. My final day wouldn’t arrive until June 16. But there was much to do in the meantime.
I’m on the third floor, making my rounds. Common areas are strangely empty. Residents, for the most part, are spending the days alone, in their rooms.
A brief visit with the nurse on duty brings me up to date on someone’s condition. The nurse adds, “It’s sad to see them just ‘shutting down’”.
Huron Lodge has done a remarkable job of hiring extra staff, and working to facilitate contact with the outside world, particularly with family members, who are now unable to pay personal visits. Through the use of electronic tablets, residents are able to participate in “virtual visits” by way of Face Time or Skype. Every effort is made to connect them with loved ones. Even so, there are some residents for whom this is too difficult. They are missing the routine of in-person family visits. They are missing the stimulation of regular recreational programming. They are missing their periods of socializing.
I make my way to the room of an elderly resident, a life-long Anglican whom I’ve ministered to regularly. Once I arrive at her side, the nurse’s words become that much more concrete. Marilyn appears to be shutting down. She is quiet and withdrawn. Needless to say, it is not an easy visit, but I can see a certain brightening in her eyes after we speak for several minutes. The conversation (albeit a stilted one) seems to be doing her some good. Is that a gentle laugh that I hear from her? A flicker in her eyes as she hears a familiar prayer?
Leaving Marilyn’s room, I can’t help wondering how long our time of connection will linger in her memory..
He was a WWII veteran.
A rather private individual, John could often be found with an open book in his lap, or strolling somewhere on his own.
John was as vulnerable as any of the other residents at Huron Lodge, but COVID-19 was about to teach me how this virus can impact a person’s life in the most unexpected way. It began with a health crisis. John was in distress one day, and an ambulance was called. But during a pandemic, a routine trip to the hospital is anything but routine. John was admitted for medical care, and then was informed that he would be quarantined for 14 days, as a pre-cautionary measure. This was in accord with the health protocols in place across the province.
After his eventual return to Huron Lodge, I met up with John and we spoke about his recent experience. We met on the outdoor pathway, and John was showing off his new vehicle: a beautiful, black electric scooter. His grinning face told the whole story: thrilled to be home; thrilled to have this new toy; thrilled to be out of quarantine. John said that he never again wanted to endure the isolation of quarantine… even if it was for needed medical attention. “Oh no” he said, “I’m not going through that again. Never. I’m staying right here!”
John would die a few short weeks after our encounter, at home, at Huron Lodge. There had been another crisis. An ambulance could have been called, but wasn’t. The prospect of another 14-day quarantine proved to be too difficult for John to even consider.
My last day as chaplain. A time for celebration and gratitude, and a day full of goodbyes.
The anxieties of mid-March have been transformed into a way of life that’s beginning to have more of a feeling of normality. And yet, COVID-19 is still a menacing presence in the world.
How will I look back on these difficult days and weeks and months? In the Book of Genesis, we find these words, spoken by Jacob: ‘Surely the Lord is in this place – and I did not know it!’ (Gen. 28:16). How true! In the midst of attending to the situation at hand, we often miss the fact that God is present at our side. In the recalling and reflecting, however, truth has a way of surfacing: yes, the Lord was present!
Chaplaincy has shown me, again and again, how God accompanies us in all our human interactions, and I’m deeply thankful to know that at Huron Lodge, the moments of care were sanctified by the Lord’s presence. This knowledge has become clearer to me, and I am forever thankful for the ministry that I was granted.
Rev. Andreas Thiel is the rector of St. Matthew's, Windsor.
(Note: Names and precise details have been altered, to maintain the confidentiality of residents.)