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Hospital Chaplain Weathers COVID-19

June 9, 2021

Staring into the camera for the short documentary subtitled Facing Fear and Death with Faith,  Christian Reformed Church chaplain Marcia Fairrow recalled how hard the COVID-19 pandemic hit her hospital in Detroit last year.

“I’ve never seen a critical care unit with two patients to a room. We are a small hospital, but we can’t turn people away,” said Fairrow in the documentary created by Our Daily Bread, a ministry of the Reformed Church in America.

“Our morgue was filled, overflowing. The funeral homes weren’t taking any more people,” said Fairrow. “It was all so awful.”

As the pandemic began last year, Matt Huizenga, a video editor and producer at Our Daily Bread, woke from an anxious sleep.

“It was way too early to get up, but I was wide awake, so I decided to pray. As I prayed, the Prayer of St. Francis came to mind, ‘Lord, make me an instrument of your peace. . . .’”

Next, all of the world’s health-care workers came to his mind— and they weren’t just healthcare workers: “They were heroes holding us all together. I wanted to hear their stories. I wanted to hear what God would teach them,” he said in a press release.

So, Our Daily Bread came up with the idea to ask health-care workers around the world to keep video diaries.

“We asked them to share their journey, their pain and joy, their fears and hopes, their faith and doubt,” said Huizenga. “And as we watched the videos come in, and as we shared in their fear and pain, their resilience and their faith absolutely inspired us.”

The results are six stories that took place on four continents. Titled Instruments of Peace: Faith on the Frontlines, the series shows doctors, nurses, and a chaplain, Marcia Fairrow, walking by faith as they worked during the pandemic.

In an interview Fairrow said that talking about her experiences in the hospital for the video diary was a sometimes painful but ultimately valuable thing for her to do.

“I used my computer as my therapist. . . . It was a way for me to reflect on the day and what had happened,” she said.

Like so many health-care workers in the early days of the pandemic, she said, she had no idea what she would encounter. But it soon became clear that this virus was very bad; it was, she said, “a pestilence.”

In those early days, as she stepped into the COVID wards, she said, it seemed that a darkness hovered over everything; hopelessness hung in the air. The hallways were packed with doctors and nurses scurrying about, trying — not always successfully — to save the lives of patients they had put on ventilators.

In the documentary Fairrow recalls peering into the room of a man dying of COVID-19. The room was dim. She got scared and wanted to run, to go home and bury herself under the covers. But she did what she could, what she did best, and began to pray, she said.

Words flowed as she prayed for the patient in that dark room.

“We love to pray, but that is not all we do. This was so serious. I remember that when the second surge of the disease came, I thought, ‘I can’t do this again’,” she said.

But she hung on; she went to the hospital and, when necessary, put on protective clothing and entered the rooms to stand beside people who were sick.

She remembers one young woman whose father was dying. Fairrow accompanied her into the room and was there as the man spoke on a cell phone to his other children before he died. The scene was crushing for her, she said.

In the video, she said she recalled thinking, “This world is awful when you have to Face Time your dying dad. . . . I was mad at God for not doing anything about it when he is the only one who could.”

There were times, she said, when she went home and spoke into her computer such things as “It’s been a tough week. I’m glad it’s over. My heart really hurts. But I need to keep going no matter what it feels like.”

The video captures a scene of Fairrow sitting reflectively by the Detroit River, with the skyline of the city in the distance. In another scene, she walks into an empty church, kneels in a pew, and folds her hands to pray.

Other scenes show her grabbing her keys and driving in to work. In other scenes, she talks in her living room, often in a firm voice that nonetheless cracks once in a while — and she takes a few moments to cry, wiping away the tears with a Kleenex.

Despite the hardships of the pandemic, she said, it has brought her closer to God. She said she was reminded of the compassion of Jesus, who wept when he visited the site where his friend Lazarus was buried.

“It is so healing to remember we have a Jesus who wept,” she said in the video. Thinking of that helped to expand her ability to weep along with patients and the nurses in the critical care unit, because too often all they could do was cry as patient after patient succumbed to the virus.

An especially hard thing happened, she said, when a close friend came in with COVID-19 and eventually died. But Fairrow drew comfort in knowing that her friend held strong to her faith and “was taken to heaven” when she passed.

“God has shown me all he can do for me if I’m open to it,” she said. “He expands my heart and makes it so I can give more.”

Suffering with people, crying with people has become her job, she said. But she has been able to handle it, and having the chance to share her story through the video has been an unexpected blessing for her, she said.

“When I agreed to do [the video], I had no idea how it would turn out. They took 10 hours of talking and cut it down to 15 minutes,” she said.

The final product was worthwhile, she said, because it gives a sense of what hospital chaplains do. People in the church she attends — First CRC of Detroit — told her how powerful the video was for them.

And it is powerful — in part because of Fairrow’s intense honesty, including the expressions on her face when she feels somber as well as when a soft smile comes as she talks about the grace of God filling her heart.

“Right now, it looks like we are getting ready to open up. People are getting vaccinated,” she said. “Still, who knows what is down the road; the virus is not gone yet.”

To an extent, said Fairrow, it feels like, along with other workers in the critical care unit, she has weathered a war. One battle after another left her depleted, and yet her faith kept her moving on, doing a job that needed to be done.

“As I look back,” she said, “I don’t see any glory in what I do — just that when you come back home, you know you did the best that you could, and you’ll go back tomorrow to start over again.”

To watch the series of videos, click here.