A few weeks ago evidence of my family’s love for me presented itself that I never wanted to see, and pray will never have to see it again. Back then, my children stood shaking and crying before me as they witnessed my health deteriorate so quickly that an ambulance came to take me away from them. They didn’t need to say it but I knew; I knew what they were thinking: they might not see their Daddy alive again.
No matter how hard we try it is impossible to shield ourselves from the reality of the Coronavirus pandemic — most of of lives have changed in someway by virtue of work, education, shopping and socialising being done at a distance from what we were used to only a few weeks ago. I know and respect my children enough to know that pretending everything is fine won’t be believed — for one thing, the evidence of their education being different cannot be ignored. And although I do my best to keep my anxiety from them, they are astute enough to pick it up from subtle and not-so-subtle signs — the most obvious being that on our daily exercise walks the repeated refrain of “mind the dog poo” has been joined with “lets keep our distance” from those out walking at the same time.
Upon entering the ambulance I entered a world of masks, visors, and gloves where faces were hidden, each person becoming so hard to identify or recognise that they became anonymous. The world was becoming hidden. Upon leaving Accident and Emergency for a ward I entered into a solitary world of isolation. The world became even harder to see, and harder to be part of.
Yet in my isolation the love and care of those who worked in the NHS shone so brightly. Each time anyone needed to come into my room they would put on a facemask, gloves, goggles and an apron – it didn’t matter whether that was for, the process was the same. So when a cleaner came in they would put on the Personal Protective Gear (PPG). When someone came to bring me some water or a meal they would put on the PPG. When someone came to give me painkillers, or change the bag of antibiotics I was hooked up to, they would put on the PPG. And when they left the room they would have to take it all off, dispose of it, and wash their hands thoroughly. I, once isolated, was freed from the need to wear it, but they were not – their glasses or visors would mist up, and the extra layers made doing their job harder, especially in the heatwave at the time. Yet they did it, no matter whether they were a cleaner, a healthcare assistant, a nurse or a doctor.
It turned out I had succumbed to not just one but two illnesses. I had Cellulitis, an infection within the skin that causes swelling and can lead to Sepsis if not caught in time, and the Epstein Barr Virus that causes Glandular Fever and other illnesses. I became a ‘fascinating case’, one made more fascinating when I had an allergic reaction to the antibiotics and my body was covered in a painful rash that made administering drugs and taking blood for tests a challenge for all involved.
But this blog post is not about my illness, but about the care and support I received from the places and people that kept me going.
The care in hospital wasn’t just functional and aimed at diagnosing and fixing what was wrong. The care continued into conversations – no matter what job or status they held, they each spoke to me, they chatted with me, they asked about my life, my future, my family. They didn’t complain when I asked for another jug of water or some more painkillers. They commiserated and calmed me when I was scared, panicked or depressed. I was scared when they thought I had caught the Coronavirus. I panicked when I was sent into the claustrophobic environment of an MRI scanner. I was depressed when my first week of isolation was over and there was still no hope of leaving it on the horizon. They became my friends on whom I depended, yet I have no idea what most of them looked like.
I could not leave my room and nor have any visitors beyond the NHS staff and a Hospital Chaplain. I had no view of the outside world to speak of either, so was dependent on technology to overcome that. My iPad provided me with both a window on the world and people to meet. My twice daily conversations with my wife and children were wonderfully normal, except when my children asked if I would be coming home that day. The normality of most of their reactions made the day easier to take.
Technology also gave me access to the Church, something that became as essential as the medication I was taking. And it made the attacks and complaints of many about the validity of online communities. My training church prayed for me during their online services. My future curacy churches did the same. And when I reached out for prayer and support through Facebook and Twitter I received not only prayer but messages and pictures of hope. At a time when I could not maintain any level of concentration or engagement, at a time when I found it too difficult to pray or worship myself, the support I received was God’s sustaining love via the digital world
I was isolated but I was not alone. God was in the room, in the technology and in the people — whether they were physically or digitally present did not matter or diminish God’s presence and ability to speak and heal. It did not matter that they were not in a church building because they were the Church. It did not matter that I could not physically be in a church building because I was in the church online.
For me this situation was temporary — I was well enough to continue recovering from home after a fortnight — but for others it is not. Because of the Coronavirus pandemic, some members of the Church may have discovered the digital church for through services and gatherings in the digital realm, but it is not new. For some connecting with the Church is only possible through digital means, so when people question, knock and complain about the appropriateness or worth of the online Church they are questioning the worth of those who cannot access the physical.
When people can once more gather together within physical churches I pray that they do not forget those who cannot. When people no longer need fear catching a potentially fatal virus every time someone comes near, I pray they don’t forget the daily work of those in the NHS, or in teaching, or elsewhere who work hard to keep us physically and mentally alive. In both situations there is a debate to be had. There are theological debates on if or how sacraments can be administered to those who cannot be in church. There are debates on how as a society we fund and resource the health care systems in our countries. There are debates on the need to live with a community mentality that sees ‘us’ and not ‘them’. But amongst these debates, both those happening now and those still to be had, we must not forget what this pandemic has shown us: that all people matter, whether they are seen or unseen, comfortable or vulnerable, like us or like others.
We are better together and whatever restrictions are put in the way — be they hidden faces, physical access, or the isolation of our own individual lives — we need to remember that the digital world is as essential as the physical to overcome them.