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A chaplain’s take on COVID-19 vaccine: This is God at work

There for the dark moments and for the light, chaplains are at the bedside

By Ken Garfield
Novant Health

Through a year of heartbreak, chaplain Fred Wale Abe has prayed at the bedside of those struggling with COVID-19. Now, he is also helping those getting the vaccine to see it as an act of love.

This, he says, is where God has called him to be: Serving at Novant Health Forsyth Medical Center in Winston-Salem, offering kindness and compassion during one of humankind’s darkest moments.

“This,” Abe says, “is the reality of God’s mercy, God’s grace. My ministry is open to ‘How can I be of support?’”

Abe is one of 30 full- and part-time chaplains serving patients and team members across the Novant Health landscape — men and women whose work has taken on new meaning during the pandemic.

Chaplains reach out to persons of all faiths, religious perspectives and value systems, said Rebekah Ramsey, manager of chaplaincy services for the greater Charlotte market. During the pandemic, they have been connecting with patients by phone, often standing behind the hospital room window. If the patient was not able to speak with them, chaplains offered a ministry of presence, even if in silence. Chaplains have also been making more phone calls to loved ones who can’t be there in person, updating them on what’s going on. If families requested last rites, chaplains would take the necessary precautions and honor the request at bedside.

Starting in December, chaplains were able to begin visiting with patients in person, honoring all safety and health protocols.

Throughout this crisis, chaplains have supported team members by posting brief videos on meditation and mindfulness that they can watch during their break. When the time comes, they’re sharing grief kits with loved ones. Included in each kit: A candle, certificate signed by team members who cared for that patient and a tiny heart made of quartz. The heart was held by the patient. Now it is held by their loved ones.

Who could have imagined the moments that hospital chaplains face: In Winston-Salem, Abe stood at the bedside of a man in his 60s. He was on a ventilator. Death was imminent due to complications from the virus. The patient’s two daughters were there. They were the only loved ones allowed in. It was time for a final prayer. Abe, in mask and gown, prayed for a miracle. Then he prayed that the will of God be done. Then he prayed that God give this man and his loved ones strength. Finally, he quietly backed away so the daughters could have their moment.

Coaxing patients past their fears

Abe (pronounced Abby) was born and raised near Lagos in Nigeria. He came to the United States in 2008 and to Novant Health in Winston-Salem in 2018. Abe, 51, served for 14 years as assistant pastor and pastor at churches in Nigeria and three European countries. Then he heard the call to serve the sick and those who care for them. As he puts it, “It’s a ministry of kindness at the service of common humanity.”

Always, and especially during the pandemic, Abe says he tries to see a patient for more than his or her diagnosis. He wants to hear their life story, know their hopes and fears. He tries to give patients the space to express their deepest emotions. He reminds them they are not alone. “My understanding is that God sees us as we are,” he says.

In recent days, Abe has broadened his focus to embrace those receiving the vaccine in the hospital’s conference center. Abe has received his vaccine. He listens to people’s concerns. Some still question the vaccine’s efficacy. Others flinch at getting a shot, any shot. Still others have a fundamental mistrust of medical care, an attitude tested by a new vaccine for a deadly virus.

Abe says he honors all those feelings. His goal is to gently coax people to look past their fears and see God at work. He helps people see that taking the vaccine is a sign they care about others and want to help eradicate what he calls “this monster disease.” Chaplain Rebekah Ramsey says it is an act of loving your neighbor.

Even during COVID-19, hospital chaplains experience moments that help them see the light for the work ahead.

There was a women who was due for the vaccine. She was in the late 60s or early 70s. A cancer survivor, she was worried about a bad reaction. But she kept telling herself this had to be done. So she did it. Abe recalls the moment she told him she came through with flying colors, not even a sore arm.

 “She had the biggest smile,” he says.