By Rabbi Benyamin Vineburg
Chaplain Resident, Michigan Medicine
For those of us with chronically ill family members, the last several months have been considerably turbulent and gut wrenching. Symptoms and conditions that we would normally “get checked out” have become purposefully less critical as we battle the fear of going to the hospital during Coronavirus. This past week it hit home for me. I found myself forced to care for a rather unique patient, one that all my training could not possibly prepare me for – my own father.
My father, who is chronically ill with kidney disease and diabetes is battling a foot infection that became progressively worse over the past several months. Due to Coronavirus, it is more difficult to receive home care for him and going to the hospital, during the pandemic, seemed completely out of the question.
When it became evident that the infection spread, I made the difficult choice to call my father an ambulance and take him to the hospital. Upon arriving, my father was so sick that he would only nod and was not oriented to his surroundings. I knew something was terribly wrong. After a few hours in the ER, it was determined that he was in septic shock and his foot had to be amputated. His subsequent emergency surgery was scheduled immediately.
While waiting in pre-op, the high doses of antibiotics had begun to remove the septic fog from my father and he began asking questions and giving meaningful responses. I was able to orient him to where we were and prepare him for what was about to happen.
So there I sat, like I have with many other patients in pre-op or a hospital room, preparing my own father for the unknown. He told me his fears, his concerns and one statement that feels almost identical to the one all my patients say these days… ‘this makes me feel scared and very lonely.’ We prayed together, as I would with any other patient who was comfortable with it, but this time, my father, a Rabbi in his own right, was looking to me as his source of consolation and healing. It was one of those moments one is never prepared for, but I did my best.
The surgery that night was a great success and I know God provided me the strength to ‘give’ to my father – like only God can; but the feelings of loneliness and fear that my father expressed have resonated with me as I contemplate the situations of my other patients and their families.
Patients are forced to battle disease and uncertainty alone because of this pandemic and families are equally pained because they are not able to be with their ill loved ones.
As a Rabbi, I sit here trying to conjure up some pithy theological reference that assure me that better times lie ahead – a vision of a hero riding in on a stallion to save the day – but I admit to you I have been greatly unsuccessful at feeling comfortable with that scenario.
While I do feel brighter days are yet to come, I think we have yet to truly stop and feel the pain and loneliness of what this pandemic has done to us. The loneliness and fear it has caused, the routine it has destroyed and the reality it has changed.
Sitting at the head of my father’s bed, trying to be ‘the chaplain’, it became clear to me how much this sucks and how no words can adequately describe the numbness and grief we feel right now.
As we move gingerly forward, and allow this new reality to come upon us, let us not waste this opportunity to feel and be with our pain and discomfort. Let us acknowledge the loss, sadness, and disorientation that comes from our pain, for when we feel pain, we know we are truly alive.