How to be present in a pandemic: use your words
By Rev. Deborah Wight-Knight, Conference Pastoral Counselor
I was a CPE (student) chaplain at Grady Hospital in 1984. One of my patients - I’ll call her Gloria - was the first documented female diagnosed with AIDS in the southeast. This was before they called it HIV/AIDS. No one knew at that time exactly how the virus spread. Was it only sexually transmitted? Was it contained in the gay and lesbian community? Were our medical personnel at risk? No one knew. Studies were just beginning on intravenous drug use and the sharing of needles. Could it be airborne? Was it transmitted via touch, through saliva, or as a result of that used tissue in the trash can? Real research had just begun and facts - pre-Internet - were questionable and hard to acquire.
Gloria was an anomaly for Atlanta. She was straight when most other AIDS patients were gay. She was alone sick female in a sea of sick men. She was not into drugs and she had not been sexually active with an infected male. She had, however, for quite some time, been sharing with her drug-dependent brother a sparse supply of needles that she needed in order to inject the insulin on which she was dependent due to diabetes.
When I met her, she weighed 86 pounds. Doctors, if wearing full protective gear, would examine her with a host of medical students and residents in tow. They were as afraid of and perplexed about this emerging epidemic as anyone else. Gloria had lesions all over her body, part of the Kaposi’s Sarcoma, so they never touched her. Nurses, also in protective gear, would administer her IV medications. Written instructions on the door alerted personnel to a “no touch” recommendation, even while protected with Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). Housekeeping was afraid to enter her room, so Gloria’s trash piled up day after day after day. No one cleaned her bathroom or mopped her floors or gave her a bath. Workers from the cafeteria would leave her tray outside her door even though she was too weak to retrieve it.
I, too, stood outside that room helplessly for two weeks. She would look at me with the most intensely forlorn expression I had ever witnessed. At the beginning of the third week, when Gloria was down to 70 pounds, I went to the nurse administrator and said, “I need to see the Infectious Disease Specialist on Gloria’s case.” The nurse looked at me with sheer unbelief. Who in the world is this student chaplain demanding to see an overworked physician? I persisted. She finally gave in and paged him. A renowned infectious disease specialist from Emory arrived 15 minutes later. It took me 10 minutes - talking as fast as I could - to get his permission to enter Gloria’s room and help her eat and bathe as well as empty her trash, as long as I wore fully protective clothing (cloth gown, gloves, mask, and eye protection).
Over the next two months I endured many chastising encounters with my supervisors, peers, and other hospital staff. Their argument was that even if I was not putting myself at enormous risk of infection with this mysterious disease, my job as spiritual companion on the journey was not to feed and bathe a patient. It certainly was not to act as a member of the housekeeping staff. Gloria’s first words to me were, “It sure feels good to hear a compassionate human voice.”
One day, after Gloria’s weight was less than 60 pounds, I said, “To hell with it.” I took off my gloves and held her hands and touched her forearm as she wept deeply from feeling the first skin to skin contact in more than three months. Shortly thereafter, Gloria died. I cried often, off and on, for weeks. Regardless of what the field of medicine reported, for the next five years I lived in fear of having contracted the disease. At that point, I drummed up the courage to be tested. I waited three weeks before receiving the news that I was HIV free.
You may think that I use that illustration to imply that we, as Christians, should ignore the precautions required during this current pandemic of COVID-19. Hear me! I am NOT recommending that. In fact, I implore you to honor the advice and instructions from those in authority who know best. This new coronavirus spreads quickly, especially through touching infected surfaces and being in close contact with infected people.
Instead, I tell the story about Gloria to emphasize the significance of the loss of human touch, actual skin-to-skin contact. You probably remember the research done decades ago on babies who were never touched or held close. As they got older, many developed serious personality disorders and other behavioral and mental health issues. We learned from those studies that touch is as essential to an infant as food. Appropriate nurture, in the form of food, love, AND touch, influences the progression of healthy natural development. Most humans either crave affection through touch or shun away from it. That quite often depends on our past experiences, especially when they include violence, neglect, or abuse.
So what are we to do when suddenly a touch or a kiss or perhaps even a breath means that we are putting someone in harm’s way? How do those in current hospital beds and ICU units feel when the squeeze of a hand is offered only by a stranger through latex- covered palms and fingers? What is it like to not see a human face in full view or to hear the familiar voices of someone we love? Or, almost as difficult, how do infected loved ones at home feel when they are confined for weeks to the basement or a bedroom once they are symptomatic?
“And Jesus put out his hand and touched…” the leper, the woman with the flow of blood, the blind man, the ear of the high priest’s servant. Very soon we will be reminded of Thomas putting his hands in the wounds of the risen Christ.
My time with Gloria was pre-Internet, pre-cell phone, pre-Facebook, before any other social media platform we can name. The other day I was introduced to a good friend’s father for the first time, so I “air hugged” him and blew him a kiss from more than six feet away. Technology, whether in the form of FaceTime on your phone, the written blog or Facebook post, or through livestream on Sunday morning as a way of sharing or hearing God’s word, can be a gift from God. When used for good, the means to stay connected and spread hope – even as a method of simply sharing your thoughts, fears, frustration, and loneliness during these complex and unprecedented times – is vital.
I have not forgotten about those without access to or the ability to use the latest technology. That’s when we pick up a phone and dial a number or grab a pen and paper, write a letter, peel off a stamp, and help support the good ole’ US Postal Service. Words create worlds. They incite imagination; provide important updates, and keep us connected…together…in Christ and in hope.
This too shall pass. It really will. Soon we will be hugging our best friend, our elderly parents, our at-risk neighbors, and the person in the pew next to us. Handshakes will resume. A pat on the shoulder or back will most likely be welcomed. In the meantime, do all in your power to be present for those who long for human contact and expressions of love. It’s like we tell our toddlers in the middle of a tantrum: “Use your words.”