Interviews with 11 frontliners
Ashley Hammer’s voice over the phone is stretched thin. She’s talking about her patients with the same anguish that came through when she spoke of concern for her family and herself.
Hammer is a registered nurse at University of Tennessee Medical Center, caring for patients as they await test results for COVID-19.
“I’m so sad for these people who are so sick and have to go through it without family. There are no visitors allowed, none. And they’re making decisions about their health on their own.
“All they have is their nurse and God.”
As people around the world stay home in the fight to foil the coronavirus, many United Methodists from Holston Conference have jobs that send them out into a dangerous world to care for others.
Hammer is a member at Wesley Chapel United Methodist Church in Dandridge, Tennessee, where her mother-in-law, the Rev. Sherry Seay Sellars, is pastor. Four months after graduating from college, Hammer is a vascular surgery and transplant nurse whose unit is helping the pulmonary unit respond to the pandemic.
“I went to the Lord daily before this, but I have to go to him more now to help me when I’m anxious, scared or sad,” said Hammer, who has two children, ages 4 and 7. Her husband is a police officer.
Her patients do a lot of praying, she said, and when asked, Hammer prays with them. "That's all they have."
Almost all of the people who spoke to The Call shared their deep concern for patients as well as family as they go back and forth between home and their virus-prone workplaces. They also talked about their faith.
More than 28,000 people with the coronavirus have now died in the United States, according to a New York Times database. In the last week, there have been three days with more than 2,000 additional deaths announced.
People with jobs that put them in physical contact with many others are at the greatest risk of becoming sick. Health care workers are at greatest risk, according to a New York Times analysis. Nurses and aides who work with the elderly, the population most susceptible to the illness, are also vulnerable.
“It’s a stressful time for everyone. My biggest stressor is unintentionally giving it to one of my patients or my son,” said Karina Chávez, a certified nurse assistant at Hillcrest Health and Rehabilitation Center in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. She worries about 14-year-old Ezequiel, who stays home alone while she works 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. shifts to cover for the staff who have resigned or fallen ill.
"I do find myself praying more – praying for God to keep my family healthy and safe. It’s difficult to have strong faith in times of fear,” said Chávez, a member at First United Methodist of Gatlinburg.
Hanna Prewitt talked about the chilling moment she learned a patient had tested positive for the virus. She relied on prayer and a gift from her 11-year-old daughter to get through the day.
“My mind started racing as I tried to think about how long was I in the room and what did I touch? My manager pulled me aside and we had a moment of prayer together,” said Prewitt, a registered nurse at Indian Path Community Hospital in Kingsport, Tennessee.
Still shaken, Prewitt went to the bathroom “and took a moment, and just prayed about it, and tried not to be fearful.” She gazed upon scripture that her daughter had written on note paper and placed in her purse:
“The Lord is my rock and my place of safety. He is the God that saves me. My God is a rock,” from Psalm 18.
"I was afraid and it was getting the best of me, but those words of encouragement really helped,” said Prewitt, a member at East Stone Gap United Methodist Church in Big Stone Gap, Virginia.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control also counts the homeless among the most vulnerable populations during the pandemic. The agency recently issued guidelines to protect the homeless and the people who work with them, including discouraging law enforcement from disrupting homeless camps.
At Shades of Grace United Methodist Church, the Rev. Jackie Carpenter’s job as administrative assistant requires him to interact daily with the homeless of Kingsport, Tennessee. Although the main building is closed to the public, Carpenter and other staff distribute daily bagged breakfasts outdoors. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, showers are offered to homeless men in another building.
Carpenter wears a mask and gloves, keeps six feet away, and frequently washes his hands to be safe. On one day, however, he was “a bit anxious” when a client posted a temperature of 102 degrees. Fever is a key symptom of coronavirus.
“I would be lying if I said I’m not concerned,” Carpenter said. “I hear a whisper in my heart, but Jesus never ran from the lepers, not once. What does that say about my faith in God if I run from someone who needs help? Then my testimony is no longer credible.”
Carpenter is pastor of Morrison Chapel United Methodist Church and the father of two children. He said he goes home every day “praying that we’re doing the right thing and that God will keep us safe.”
Several United Methodists on the frontlines talked about the extra time, effort, and organization required to avoid infection in their workplaces and the processes they go through to cleanse themselves when they return home.
Prewitt described how she changes her clothes and shoes before leaving the hospital, placing them in a closed plastic container and heading straight for the shower when she arrives home. Her husband puts on protective gear to sanitize her car, keys and phone and places her uniform into the washing machine. Then he showers.
In addition to extra protective precautions required at James H. Quillen Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Mountain Home, Tennessee, the Rev. Kevin Holmes also has a routine when he returns home.
“I disrobe before I get in the house, and I go directly to the shower,” said Holmes, palliative care clinical chaplain and Holston Conference clergy member.
He and his wife, the Rev. Amy Holmes, have talked about putting a tent in the backyard in case he has to quarantine from her and their 13-year-old daughter.
“We’ve also had talks about end-of-life care and our intentions,” Holmes said. “I think everybody is feeling the weight of all this. I’ve been approached by staff, veterans, and family members about having prayer.”
Allen Piercy cares for 30 to 40 elderly patients during his eight-hour shifts as a licensed practical nurse at Beverly Park Place Health and Rehab in Knoxville, Tennessee. Extra time is added to the beginning and end of his shift to screen for the virus and to put on and take off protective gear. Every patient has to be tested for COVID-19 during every shift.
Once clocked in, staff are not allowed to leave the building for meals, to smoke, or to get a breath of fresh air.
“That in itself has created this sense of gloom,” said Piercy, a member at Bearden United Methodist Church. “All these extra steps are very frustrating, but you have to bite the pill and swallow it.”
Like Carpenter at Shades of Grace, many workers on the front lines know they are chosen to be on the front lines, however risky, when their communities are in need.
Emily Stevens works 50 hours a week at a Kroger that, like most food stores, has gone into overdrive since the pandemic struck the U.S. She works additional hours delivering food orders to homes in Knoxville, Tennessee.
A full-time student at the University of Tennessee and six-year Kroger employee who typically works one to two days a week, Stevens said she jumped in to help her employer when her college classes went online.
“They really need the help,” says Stevens, a member of Cokesbury United Methodist Church. She said she’s encouraged when customers come up to thank her and her fellow employees for their work several times a day.
“Every day I come into contact with hundreds of people, so I definitely feel like I’m working on the front lines, 100 percent. I’m personally not nervous, although it stinks that I can’t be with my family because I could be carrying the virus,” she said.
Melinda Wolfe, an employee at Whole Foods Market in Knoxville, Tennessee, said “99.9 percent of customers are very appreciative” of her and her co-workers – and that helps a lot.
“I’ve always felt like my work is my service,” said Wolfe, a member at Washington Pike United Methodist Church. A recent Bible study on the book of Esther has helped to carry her through the anxious times.
"God is working to be with you, to protect you, to put you where you need to be. He is moving in your life from day to day,” Wolfe said.
Many of the United Methodists who spoke to The Call urged readers to pray and to continue to think of their community as it becomes increasingly difficult to adapt to new lifeways in the age of coronavirus.
“Pray for us, pray for the patients, and truly, stay at home,” said Becca Malone, a registered nurse at the Knox County Health Department in Knoxville, Tennessee. Malone is the daughter of the Rev. Nathan Malone and member of Two Rivers Church.
“As people of faith, we want to do something. I understand that. But it really is an act of love and act of support to practice social distancing. It’s an act of love for health-care professionals and patients and your loved ones.”
The Rev. Harry Howe is Holston clergy and a physician’s assistant at Mel Leaman Free Clinic at Emory & Henry School of Health Sciences in Marion, Virginia. The staff and volunteer force are reduced as students and older, retired physicians are no longer available.
“They are certainly there because they want to serve, but don’t overburden your medical community if you can help it. They’re overburdened as it is,” said Howe. Make every effort to stay healthy and avoid unnecessary trips to the doctor, he said.
Dan Hammer is a physician at Claiborne Medical Center in Tazewell, Tennessee. He also asked for prayers for patients, including those not suffering with COVID-19 but who may have dementia or other illnesses that leave them utterly alone during a time of no-visitation policies.
“It is heartbreaking to see patients who would normally have several people by their bedsides at the end of life,” said Hammer, a member of Wesley Chapel United Methodist Church in Dandridge, Tennessee. “The best anyone can do is pray for the whole situation.”
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Holston Conference includes 864 United Methodist congregations in East Tennessee, Southwest Virginia, and North Georgia.
Annette Spence is editor of The Call, the Holston Conference newspaper.
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