Pandemics (Part 2) – Fear and Love Inside a New York City Hospital April 06 2020

(Part of BCF’S blog series: “Society, Selflessness, and the Scriptures")

I was born in a hospital in upstate New York. I should say barely born, because during my birth, my mother developed life-threatening problems, and thought that she and I were not going to survive. It was at that moment that she says she received Christ as her Savior. And in the years to come, she would go on to faithfully teach Bible clubs for neighborhood children. On reflection, my brother and I were not the best of examples to the other children, and my mom would have heartily agreed.

I bring this up to say that, although we moved down to Virginia when I was six, I still think fondly of the Empire State, and have recollections about life there even to this day. So when the World Trade Center was bombed in 1993, the towers came down on 9/11 (2001), and Superstorm Sandy wreaked havoc in 2012, I was paying attention. So here New York City is again, on the front lines of fighting COVID-19. And if you’ve ever been on a New York subway or just walked down one of the avenues, you can somewhat understand how it could happen so much faster and more intensely there than other places in the U.S.

As I have been listening to COVID-19 news reports about the worsening situation in my birth state, I can only wonder what it must be like being a doctor, nurse, or paramedic in that environment. I had a little taste of the drama that can occur in a hospital when last  year I spent a few hours in the emergency room, and after surgery, four days in a hospital room. The May 18, 2019 BCF blog “A Tribute to Healthcare Workers” recounts my observations about the stresses and commitment of the medical staff on that floor. I have seen from my readings that serving patients on a COVID-19 floor is at another level altogether, because of the magnitude of the challenge and the degree to which health care workers are putting their own lives at risk.

One of the articles that seemed to be a fair depiction (not over- or under-dramatized) was written this past Friday by a doctor serving COVID patients in at New York-Presbyterian Hospital. In the article “Adrenaline, Duty, and Fear,” he likens the experience to that of a military “surge” in a sort of medical militia. He ends the article with the following summary:

“I am exhausted but content at the end of most days…. Now, when I’m in the hospital, the focus is so singular, the mission so clear, that nothing else seems important. There is nowhere that I, or my colleagues, would rather be. There’s an odd sense in which the pandemic has made the practice of medicine into what many doctors hoped it would be.
“The battle, however, is only beginning. Adrenaline, duty, and fear have motivated an impassioned response, but some of us wonder how sustainable it is. Nights in lonely hotel rooms, away from family; weeks of long hours and heightened risk…. A surge is, by definition, time-limited. What happens when doctors can’t see the end?”

He speaks of medical students graduating early to help in the fight; pathology residents volunteering on the medical floors; a setting aside of pride, with senior physicians performing tasks normally below them; working across the silos and fiefdoms that can exist in the medical world. Hearing directly from the front lines is quite eye-opening for those of us with limited exposure to the world of medical professionals in crisis situations.

I have no idea of the author’s faith, but in so many ways, this reminds me of the principles of servanthood and selflessness in the Scriptures. It is really an application of the principle of focusing on the love that “casts out fear” (1 John 4:18) as we covered in Part 1 of the “Pandemics” blog. Paul described it well in Philippians 3. And it is worth noting that, while most of us are experiencing confinement as part of the Coronavirus “flattening the curve” strategy, Paul was writing this from his own confinement, which was far worse than the limitations currently imposed on many of us. Paul writes:

But whatever things were gain to me, those things I have counted as loss for the sake of Christ. More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish so that I may gain Christ, and may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith, that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death; in order that I may attain to the resurrection from the dead …. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 3:7-11, 13-14)

The lesson for us is that the focus should not be on looking backward (that is, how we got here, or playing the blame-game, or cowering in fear), but on looking forward to what it is that we actually need to do next. What is needed in terms of supplies and personnel? Where do these people and materials need to be positioned? How do we communicate and coordinate across states and even countries around the world? This is a gigantic logistics problem that has to solved in real time, with only partial information. But it is always, always looking forward, learning from where we have been, but not focusing on it. Looking forward appears to be the focus of most of those who are part of the Coronavirus medical militia and many of the leaders of the combined governmental and private sector response – not perfect, but mostly looking forward nevertheless.

Like military families, this has to be the focus of many medical families as well, as they wave goodbye to their loved ones going into the surge, not knowing whether they will become victims themselves. This is certainly true of Samaritan’s Purse, who set up a field hospital in New York’s Central Park last week, “in Jesus’ name.” Who could have imagined? And what an amazing testimony of love.  I have heard it said that “real heroes don’t wear capes.” But they do wear “scrubs.” And when they have the singular focus of saving lives, they rank right alongside those in uniform who have served this country selflessly as well. 

Perhaps the hardest part for our leaders is how to walk the fine line between “flattening the curve” while minimizing the damage to the economy and the livelihoods of millions of people. We have to agree that striking this balance presents extremely difficult choices, and also requires aggressive action to prepare for what our leadership has described as the more difficult days ahead. 

Paul’s analogy for the Christian life is somewhat similar. We know a lot about what lies behind, but we cannot dwell on that. We rather need to focus on knowing Him, and the power of His resurrection, which we will celebrate this week. While we may feel confined like Paul, we also like him are not limited by the walls around us (after all, he did manage to get out several letters while imprisoned). We can still study and pray together virtually; we can invite others to our virtual Easter services, and we can communicate outside those walls in a way Paul could never have imagined. As Paul told Timothy, “but the word of God is not imprisoned” (2 Timothy 2:9). And neither is our communication with Him. Praise the Father that these walls pose no barriers to celebrating our resurrected King! Have a blessed resurrection Sunday.

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Steve Smith