Faith on the frontline: Healthcare workers share stories of spiritual strength amid COVID-19

More

Healthcare workers in the Pittsburgh region talk about faith and religion amid COVID-19. (Photos by Ryan Loew, Jay Manning and Nick Childers/PublicSource)

We’re about one year into the COVID pandemic, and healthcare workers have reason to be exhausted: upended routines and unexpected tragedies, patients without visitors and fears for their own families.

For healthcare workers who identify as people of faith, the challenges are physical, mental, emotional and spiritual. Their day-to-day work requires them to dig deep—to draw upon their faiths amid stress, grief and uncertainty.

To see this kind of resilient faith in action, PublicSource spoke with six Pittsburgh-area healthcare professionals from varying clinical settings and religious traditions. They shared stories of medicine and faith practiced together.

Dr. Tara Hyder

Internist, University of Pittsburgh Physicians

Dr. Tara Hyder outside her home in Collier Township. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

When COVID-19 hit, the urgent care clinic where Dr. Tara Hyder is a physician took an unanticipated frontline role. 

Primary care clinics were in lockdown. Patients with normal cold symptoms were told not to go to their doctors. People with injuries were afraid to go to the emergency room. People who thought they had COVID were looking to be tested.

And so they came to urgent care. 

Once the clinic had COVID-testing capabilities, they were seeing 60 to 80 patients in a 12-hour period and monitoring those who tested positive on top of that.

“It really was the most challenging period in my career so far,” Hyder said.

Hyder was no stranger to adversity. She survived the Gulf War growing up in Saudi Arabia and was a medical trainee in Toronto during the SARS 1 outbreak of 2003. But this felt different.

“You’re seeing this crisis, this pandemic, and nobody knows how to deal with it. ...Our patients, because we were the only point of contact, depended on us for knowledge, and you can’t give them that knowledge.”

This fear of the unknown was compounded by other concerns. She worried that she and her husband, who is also a physician, would bring the virus into their household. She was angered by the blasé attitude many people showed toward the virus and, with it, healthcare workers’ lives. She empathized with her teenage daughters, who felt anxious about their parents’ well-being.

“It was hard to practice medicine during this time,” she said. “So what becomes an issue is, ‘How do you cope?’”

Hyder’s Muslim faith anchored her.

Before the pandemic, she had not really thought about her work as a doctor in spiritual terms. She knew her religion emphasized the importance of service, but it wasn’t a framework she often applied to her own work.

That changed with COVID. She found herself having long conversations with her father, who is also a physician and had always been more religious than her. 

“The way he explained it is, ‘These are just tests. Throughout our Holy Book, the Quran, God sends these things like disease, or war, or famine as a way to test Muslims in their faith. It’s times like this, when there is so much uncertainty, that you do need to turn to faith.’” 

Her father gave her small duas, or short prayers, that she could say before each shift or before entering each patient room. During the pandemic, she adopted that practice. 

She also formed several other spiritual habits, including making time for quiet reflection during Ramadan, keeping up with her Jewish-Muslim women’s group, the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom, and taking daily walks with friends who were also Muslim physicians.

“At a time like this, when everybody is turning to you, and you don’t have anybody to turn to — I guess that’s the function of religion,” she said. 

Dr. Steven Evans

Clinical Professor of Surgery in the Division of Surgical Oncology and Director of Community Engagement, University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, Department of Surgery

Dr. Steven Evans stands in front of the brick wall of Mount Ararat Baptist Church

Dr. Steven Evans outside of Mount Ararat Baptist Church. (Photo by Nick Childers/PublicSource)

A surgeon who specializes in treating cancer patients, Dr. Steven Evans is no stranger to faith’s tough questions. 

“At the time when you’re told you’re diagnosed with cancer, your mind is flooded with so many questions and concerns and fears,” he said. 

Evans takes his role in these moments seriously. As a practicing Baptist who attends Mount Ararat Baptist Church, he seeks to be a bridge or guide, a “light of hope” amid patients’ grief.

The weight of that responsibility became all the greater during the pandemic. Thanks to COVID protocols, patients this last year were more likely to see Evans without the support of friends or family members by their side.

“With that limited access, when you are caring for someone in our facility, you become their family. You become that person who is there in their time of distress and despair.”

Complicating matters, some of Evans’ patients were afraid to even come to the hospital during the pandemic. For that reason, especially for the first few months, the hospital saw delays in both the diagnosis and treatment of cancer. 

Evans knew these delays could worsen outcomes for patients and heighten inequalities among the patient populations he served.

“Unfortunately, there’s already a great disparity in outcomes as it affects cancers— of all organs— as it relates to African-American communities and peoples of color,” he said. “We didn’t want that to accelerate any more than it already has.”

To overcome patients’ hesitations, Evans and his associates needed to educate patients about the hospital’s safeguards and build relationships with them grounded in trust.

Evans saw that charge as a “double duty”— something to which he was called as both a medical professional and a person of faith. 

“As a community, we cannot be made whole if there is one who is left behind. It is incumbent upon us, as physicians and as faith leaders, to look at how we can bring everyone up to equal levels of health and well-being.”

Courtney Acampora

Nurse Manager, Medical-Surgical Unit, Canonsburg Hospital, Allegheny Health Network 

Courtney Acampora sits on a bench outside the main entrace to Canonsburg hospital, Allegheny Health Network

Courtney Acampora outside of Canonsburg Hospital, part of the Allegheny Health Network. (Photo by Jay Manning/PublicSource)

Courtney Acampora stepped into her new role as nurse manager at Canonsburg Hospital in February 2020.

A mere three weeks later, COVID-19 struck, and everything changed.

In her role as manager, Acampora had to make sure her staff understood the hospital’s shifting protocols. She and her colleagues also had to find new ways to communicate with their patients, many of whom were elderly and now weren’t accompanied by visitors who could assist in their interactions.

As a Christian and member of the Log Church in Pittsburgh, Acampora found herself praying for strength, energy and patience. This helped her through new challenges in her work, like helping patients who were frustrated or confused by COVID regulations.

“As healthcare providers, we do it every day. So sometimes we don’t stop to think, ‘OK, I have to explain why, the reasoning behind this,’” she said

Acampora’s church community was a major source of support throughout this period. For the first few months of the pandemic, they met virtually. When the church re-opened for in-person gatherings, Acampora felt the atmosphere was exciting.

“That was really neat to see. I feel like maybe it had awoken people a little bit,” she said. “They felt like, ‘OK, I need something that is bigger than me because we can’t control this.’”

Acampora credits her faith for helping her look for positives through the difficulty of this past year. 

“It increases your muscle of faith, I’ll say.”

Dr. Jonathan Weinkle

General Internist and Pediatrician, Squirrel Hill Health Center 

Dr. Jonathan Weinkle works at the Squirrel Hill Health Center. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

Pre-pandemic, the Squirrel Hill Health Center always buzzed with activity. As a federally-qualified health clinic, the center knew the importance of using resources efficiently. That included workspaces. The physicians shared bullpen style offices, and patients and their families squeezed together in small examination rooms.

For Dr. Jonathan Weinkle, the difference after COVID was stark. “We go from, ‘We’re packed in like sardines’ on Friday the 13th to an empty office on Monday the 16th,” he said. 

Weinkle describes the onset of COVID-19 as a “quiet disaster.” The clinic had withstood previous traumas, including the loss of dentist Dr. Richard Gottfried in the Tree of Life synagogue shooting in October 2018. But here they were responding to a tragedy that was yet to be fully realized, at least in Pittsburgh.

The result was an odd quiet. 

“It was like a snow day, but, like, a whole bunch of snow days in a row,” Weinkle said. He continued to see patients for telehealth appointments, and the clinic eventually reopened at a reduced capacity. Still, the pace was slower than before COVID.

For Weinkle, that quiet provided a needed opportunity to think and connect with his Jewish faith. 

“Pre-pandemic, it was really exhausting. The work we do is hard,” he said. When he stepped back from his work routine, he had more time to reflect on it.  “Being out really refocused me on why I like being in.”

While working remotely, Weinkle spent time praying, thinking and studying. He learned from the rabbis at his Pittsburgh synagogue, Congregation Beth Shalom. He participated in an online study of Jewish texts with other people around the country. 

Following a ritual outlined in the Torah, he counted the omer, or numbered the days, for the seven weeks between Passover and Shavuot, a holiday celebrating Jews’ receipt of the law at Mount Sinai. Each evening, either on Zoom with his congregation or by himself, he would stop to honor the day using a traditional Hebrew blessing: this is the first day of omer, this is the second day. For only the second time in his life, he completed the ritual every evening for seven weeks without missing a day. 

Weinkle brought his questions and uncertainties about the COVID moment to these practices. And, in the texts and traditions, he found ways forward, ways to keep serving people’s needs, one day to the next.

He said of Judaism, “So much is based in the little hidden gems that are in the text, that are in all of the writings that have been promulgated over millennia.”

He continued, “A lot of the things that are coming in handy now are things that I had studied before and would never have connected with the pandemic. And here it is, I’m connecting it with the pandemic.”

Dr. Jessica Price

Pediatrician and Interim Medical Director, North Side Christian Health Center 

Dr. Jessica Price stands outside the entrance to North Side Christian Health Center

Dr. Jessica Price outside of North Side Christian Health Center. (Photo by Nick Childers/PublicSource)

For as long as Dr. Jessica Price can remember, she wanted to be a doctor. It was, and is, one way she lives out her Christian faith.

“For me, it’s always felt like a calling, something that God has given me to do and would help me do to serve people.”

For the last four and a half years, Price has fulfilled that calling as a pediatrician at the North Side Christian Health Center of Pittsburgh. The clinic is a federally qualified health center, meaning it specializes in offering healthcare to low-income and underserved populations.

COVID-19 immediately complicated the center’s day-to-day operations. It also simultaneously increased the community’s need for the clinic’s services.

“People have lost their jobs. People have lost health insurance,” Price said. “Our patients are vulnerable at baseline, but particularly during this time.”

Price is a member of West View United Methodist Church, where her spouse is the pastor. She also directs the Abundant Health Initiative of the Western Pennsylvania Conference of the United Methodist Church, which took charge of helping United Methodist churches in the region respond to COVID safely.

She relied upon her faith to keep the difficulty of the moment from becoming paralyzing. 

“When you look around at the world, and all of the suffering and the terrible things that are happening….It feels really helpless. You can feel really powerless,” she said. 

Yet, even with no obvious “light at the end of the tunnel,” she has kept getting up and going to work.

“I can’t be guaranteed that what I do will make a difference or that, in my lifetime, this issue will ever be resolved. But I have faith that, no matter what, God’s in control. God can handle all my questions.”

Rev. Andrew Shaffer

Chaplain, UPMC Shadyside Hospital

Rev. Andrew Shaffer stands outside Posner Tower, an entrance to UPMC Shadyside hospital

Rev. Andrew Shaffer outside of UPMC Shadyside. (Photo by Jay Manning/PublicSource)

For Rev. Andrew Shaffer, a hospital chaplain at UPMC Shadyside, the onset of COVID-19 caused a shift in his basic job responsibilities.

Before the pandemic, Shaffer would come and go from patients’ rooms freely as needs arose. He also spent much of his time offering counsel to patients’ families. 

After COVID, neither practice was possible in the same way. He could only visit patients who specifically requested his services, and he rarely interacted with families.

There was one population in the hospital, though, that needed his presence more than ever. And that was the medical staff.

Shaffer saw COVID’s unpredictability as one reason it presented such an emotional challenge to healthcare workers. It was hard to foresee which patients would survive from one day to the next.

“COVID-19 is a very harsh illness. It is unrelenting,” he said. “The phrase I use is, ‘It doesn’t play by the rules.’”

Given these emotional tolls, one of Shaffer’s primary roles since the start of COVID-19 has been to support medical staff. Sometimes that has meant offering spiritual counsel. More often, it has meant just being present.

“I have no magic words,” he said. “There’s nothing I can do, can say, that’s going to fix anything. But what I do is I try to encourage people in order to put them back in the game. I just support them, listen to them.”

He encourages people to serve in this listening role for one another, too. “I believed this before COVID, and I believe this now, and I’ll believe it forever. Oftentimes we see God in action in the small acts of people showing up at the right time to listen to one another.”

Chris Hedlin is PublicSource’s faith and religion reporter. She can be reached at chris@publicsource.org.

This story was fact-checked by Megan Gent.

Comments are closed.