Message from Lutheran pastor working at a Covid unit

Message from Lutheran pastor working at a Covid unit

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Text: KötőSzó blog, Beáta Kézdi. Translation: ELCH Ecumenical Office
”If I could, I would show the people acting skeptically or irresponsibly what everyday life at a Covid unit looks like”, says Ákos Eszlényi. The mission pastor of the congregation in Kerepes-Kistarcsa (Budapest) also serves as a hospital chaplain in the Pest County Hospital, so he has hands-on experience of the situation inside the unit. In this interview, he shares his thoughts on the pandemic, vaccination, different ways to help and the power of prayer.

– How much time do you spend at the hospital?

– During this past year I have been there more often than before. Normally I work ten hours a week as a hospital chaplain. This includes two hours of scrubbing and gowning and two hours of ventilation [note of the editor: in psychology ventilation refers to the release and handling of accumulated stress or negative feelings], leaving six hours to be spent among the patients. Having realized that wasn’t enough in the current situation, I decided to double the time. There is more need than ever before to visit both the patients and the staff there. The congregation planting work at the community of Kistarcsa has come to a temporary standstill for understandable reasons, so I utilize the extra time at the hospital and the old people’s home.

– Can you describe what a hospital visit looks like?

– I go there every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. The hospital has two main units: one for the Covid patients and one for the non-Covid patients. In the non-Covid unit I go to each room, introduce myself to the patients and tell them that I am available for spiritual counseling if they want to talk to a Lutheran pastor. I hand out free copies of our church magazines or books of the Luther Publishing House. I also ask the doctors and the nurses if they need my help. The other part of my time is spent at the Covid unit. After a fifteen-minute routine of changing and donning the protective clothing, I do a round of this ward, too.  There are some familiar faces who have been hospitalized for quite a while, or occasionally colleagues ask me to check on a member of their congregation, because under the present circumstances only Catholic deacons and Protestant hospital chaplains are authorized to enter with a special permission by the hospital director. No other visitors are allowed.   

– What happens while you are at the Covid unit?

– It is a completely restricted area running at peak capacity. It is practically always full. There are some patients who I can sit next to and listen to, but some of them are in such a severe condition that I can only stop beside their beds, bless them, read a psalm and pray. 

– So you have exchanged the traditional black gown of a Lutheran pastor for the white protective gown of medical personnel. To what extent does this make your work more difficult? 

– It is often so that the length of my time at the Covid unit is determined by my physical condition. It feels like I sweat out about one to one and a half kilos each time. And I only have to get changed once during a visit, while hospital staff must do it three to four times a day. I wonder how they feel. When I was a child, I imagined angels to have a white dress and wings. Now, when I look at the medical workers, the white clothing is there and so are the wings, most probably – they are only difficult to see under the protective suit. 

– Is there a need for counselling among the staff members, too?

– At the non-covid unit nurses let me know if they think someone needs support or wants to talk. The rapport is building up step by step, but at the Covid unit no medical worker has come up to me for help, yet. They know the Catholic colleagues better because they have been there for a much longer time. Still, I am convinced that this kind of ministry is desperately needed. In the pandemic situation, we need to support not only the patients but also the medical workers. I can see how much they appreciate our presence and prayers. 

– Considering that you have an insider’s view of Covid units and the condition of the infected, what is your opinion of vaccination? Are you vaccinated yourself? 

– Yes, I am. I received my second shot three weeks ago. I fully agree with the thoughts expressed by Presiding Bishop Tamás Fabiny in his video message. He encouraged everyone to take up the vaccine, which is currently the only effective way to protect our health and the health of those around us. No quackery, no good luck, no false hopes of being spared by the virus – none of those help. As far as I see it, the more people are vaccinated, the less intensive care unit (ICU) admissions are needed. This is the solution. Sometimes whole families end up in hospital. Last week a mother and her daughter were discharged after recovery but they had lost the grandmother and could not even attend the funeral. Unless you see it with your own eyes, it is difficult to imagine, what it means to literally choke for air, or struggle with constant pain, cough or fluctuating high fever for many days. If it was up to me, I would show the people acting skeptically or irresponsibly, what life at such a unit looks like. They should see the heroic fight for lives and the horrible condition the infected are in. Thank God, the number of recoveries still exceeds the number of deaths.

– Unfortunately, some media reports mention prayer and believing in its power in a negative light. Considering that we are living in the midst of a pandemic, what is your opinion of the healing power of prayer?

– I admit that I refrain from reading Covid-related news in order to avoid getting weary of life. I am convinced that there is significant power in prayer. When I tell the workers and patients in the hospital that they are constantly being prayed for, it gives them strength and it gives me strength, too. I remember the semester-opening worship in my first year at the Theological Academy. In the sermon the preacher talked about how and elderly woman in one of the rural communities had made it a habit of hers to read the names of the newly admitted students from the Lutheran weekly and pray for them one by one. We didn’t know her and, apparently, she didn’t know us either, but for me it was important to know during my preparation for ministry and whenever I felt uncertain that there was somebody who kept me in her prayers and stood behind me, so to say. So, I also asked my Sunday school students in Kerepes and Kistarcsa to pray for the sick, as well as the doctors and nurses caring for them each morning after they wake up – the older ones can do it alone, the younger ones with their families. 

– What feedback do you get, when you talk about prayer at the hospital? 

– I can see how much everyone appreciates being entrusted into the love and care of God. No matter, what denomination they belong to, whether they are religious or not, I rarely encounter people who refuse to talk or reject my offer to help. Actually, most of them are grateful for the assistance and the prayers we share. Prayer gives us the opportunity to bring our requests, our praise and our difficulties before God. We can experience how this empowering gift of God can complement – but not substitute for – medical treatment. We must keep the balance of physical and spiritual factors in healing.  

– What else can a hospital chaplain do apart from being present and praying? 

– I also consider it a gift of God that I can distribute older copies of our Lutheran magazines. They are only old with regard to their date of publication but the contents and the message definitely remain relevant. The patients can read the articles and find strength and comfort in the Word of God expressed through the articles. The spiritual message in these publications is a great help on the road to recovery. At the same time, the members of the Lutheran community in Csömör are now making hand-written Bible verse cards to support those who are hospitalized. We are also looking for ways to feed the medical workers in the hospitals in our region not only spiritually but also physically with nutritious tasty home-made food. 

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